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The earliest authentic documents of Christianity which we now possess, are the letters of St. Paul. The aim of these letters is not historical, and yet their teaching and exhortation are conspicuously based upon the acceptance by both writer and reader of a certain set of facts, and to the facts the letters frequently allude. Now if we could ascertain just what this body of facts was, as Paul understood it, we should have before us a very early version of the Gospel resting on very high authority. It is the purpose of this paper to consider what would be the historical value of Paul's Gospel if we could recover it, to try how far it can be recovered, and to point out certain conclusions which result from these inquiries.
1. The Historical Value of Paul's Gospel.
The first inquiry touches the genuineness of the epistles which bear Paul's name. Scholars differ much about some of these, but there are lour which the most destructive rationalistic criticism finds itself unable to impeach, so that they stand unquestioned. Now the writer by no means concedes that the others are not genuine, but since the purpose of the present inquiry is sufficiently served by these four, and it may in some quarters seem to give strength to the argument if they alone are used, reference will be here made only to Romans, First and Second Corinthians, and Galatians. Whatever can be fairly built on these, will stand any criticism as yet developed.
We must next look at the chronology. While this can not be certainly determined at every point, it is still possible to come very near accuracy. The four letters were written in the same period of the apostle's work, and probably all between 55 and 59. As the crucifixion is probably to be placed in 35, these documents, as we now possess them, were written within twenty or twenty-five years of the end of that series of events which constitute the gospel history. But this history NEW SERIES. VOL. XVIII
is everywhere alluded to as already known to writer and readers. It was a wide range of territory and of social condition from Galatia by way of Corinth to Rome, and yet through it all Paul assumes a knowledge of the facts which he had in mind, the last of which were not twenty-five years old. We cannot certainly know how long this story had been so widely current, but we have in one of these very letters ? information about Paul's first acquaintance with it. He was converted certainly within five years after the death of Jesus, (there is high authority for putting it within one year,) and three years later 3 he sought the personal acquaintance of the chief surviving eye-witness of the gospel history, and spent a fortnight with him. From this time onward he was in constant intercourse with Christians who had learned the same story from various sources, all traceable to the testimony of eye-witnesses. If, then, we can make out Paul's gospel, it will be the statement of a man unusually intelligent, learned, and interested in his subject, who obtained his information within eight years of the events from at least one principal actor and witness, who thenceforth devoted his life to the diffusion of this intelligence and his deductions from it, who had constant opportunity of comparing his own version of the story with many other versions, and who, in the prime of his powers and the thick of his work, committed his matured understanding of this history to writing within twenty or twenty-five years of the great events. If an American citizen of suitable talents and education, and now thirty years of age, should within the next five years publish a history of our civil war composed from information similarly obtained, the case would be exactly parallel, and the history would be of the greatest value.
II. Paul's Gospel.
Of course we shall not hope to recover from writings of this kind an even and symmetrical history. Those parts of the story which are most available for doctrine or exhortation will
i Rom. i. 6; vi. 17; xvi. 19; 1 Cor. i. 4-7; X. 16; xv. 1; 2 Cor. iii. 3; xiii. 5; Gal.
9; iv. 9.
2 Gal. i. 13-18.
8 Gal. i. 18.
be most clearly expressed ; and special prominence will be given to those which most suit the peculiar cast of Paul's mind. And yet the fact is that from these four epistles a very satisfactory outline of the gospel may be gathered. Let us throw into narrative form what may be so gleaned.
The great personage of the gospel story is Jesus Christ, who was of Jewish race, and a descendant of David. He appeared like other men, and his relatives were commonly known. His life was one of poverty, marked by self-denial," righteousness, 10 meekness, and gentleness. 11 He gathered about him many adherents to whom he was personally known,12 including an especial group of twelve,13 with whom his relations were peculiarly tender. 14 Near the close of his career he instituted the eucharist,15 and in the night of the same day he was betrayed.16 Having fallen into the hands of persons high in civil authority, 17 he was crucified, his crucifixion having some special connection with the sacrifice of the Passover.18 On the cross he died 19 and his body was buried, 20 but the third day after he appeared alive to individuals 21 and groups of those who had personally known him.22 This Jesus, moreover, was no common man. He and his career had been predicted by ancient prophets.23 A power wrought in him which proclaimed him the Son of God.24 His object was the welfare of sinners,25 for whom he voluntarily sacrificed himself.23 Since his resurrection he remains the inspiring and guiding power of the church 24 and its leaders,28 and the highest fountain of wisdom and welfare for men.?
This is Paul's gospel. It is merely an outline, but it is clear and characteristic as Flaxman's heroes. We easily recognize in it a fit and sufficient basis for the great structure of Christian faith which Paul built upon it.
III. Conclusions. 1. This outline implies a body of details which were well
4 Rom. ix. 5.
10 Rom. x. 4.
24 Rom. i. 4.
26 Gal. i. 4. 13 1 Cor. xv. 5.
19 20 1 Cor. xv. 3-6. 27 1 Cor. xii. 27. 14 1 Cor. xi. 24. 21 22 1 Cor. xv. 3-6. 28 2 Cor. xii. 9. 16 1 Cor. xi. 23-25. 23 Rom. xv. 8.
29 1 Cor. i. 24, 30.
known to Paul's readers ; so that not only was the outline drawn exactly as we possess it within twenty-five years of the events, but the whole story was at that time so well known throughout the Roman world, that it was only necessary to allude to any point in addressing argument or instruction to Galatian, Corinthian, or Roman Christians. The margin of time, therefore, for the growth of myths based on the true facts of this history, is reduced to twenty-five years at the utmost, probably to twenty. Moreover any such myths must have developed with singular harmony in the most distant places, or else they must have grown in very few years to leave time for such wide diffusion. And strangest of all, either Paul must have taught them as he held them to the entire Christian world, (which is demonstrably not the fact,) or they must have developed with equal pace in such a mouths as his, through fifteen active years, and in the minds of illiterate and zealous Christians all over the world. Hence there is no room for myths in Paul's gospel.
2. This early and authentic outline of the gospel affords us an admirable gauge for measuring any subsequent narratives of the detailed history. The four which we possess are of disputed dates, ranging from about 60 to 150, according to different critics. But so well do they fit Paul's outline that every reader of the former who for the first time sees the latter, would say it is an abstract made from the fuller histories. There is no mistaking the accurate harmony. And here it may be noticed that while the historical phase of Paul's gospel tallies perfectly with the Synoptics, the inner or spiritual aspect singularly reminds us of John. So that we have here an authority much earlier than any of the four, and fully equal to any of them in dignity,30 which at once authenticates and harmonizes them all.
3. The parts of the gospel history which Paul gives most fully and emphatically, are those which are commonly called supernatural. The fulfilment of prophecy, the sublime dignity of Jesus, his resurrection, and his subsequent living
80 2 Cor. xi. 5.
leadership of the church, are in Paul's sight the conspicuous features of the story. And all this began with him within five years of Christ's death, and continued through fifteen or twenty years of hard conflict and constant collision of testimony and opinion. What a light this consideration throws on the theory that the life of Jesus was that of ordinary men, only hallowed by unusual purity and wisdom ; and that it was endowed with supernatural adornments by the fancy of later ages. If in the twenty-five years before Paul wrote, the facts of a human life, however extraordinary, could have grown into his conception of the Son of God, we may well imagine what a flood of supernaturalism would have been poured through all the story by less trained minds writing a generation later, as did, perhaps, our evangelists. The fact is that the Synoptics give a history which in its details tallies well with the outline of Paul, but in its tone shows a far less vivid appreciation of the exalted dignity and power of Christ. So that the momentous conclusion of the whole matter is this ; the nearer our records approach to the person and the time of Jesus, the more dazzlingly does his divine greatness shine forth. Just as the chief priests, cool in their council chamber, asked, “ Why have ye not brought him?” but the officers, awe-stricken from the presence of the Lord, made answer, “Never man spake like this man."
The Sacrifice of Christ.
All the religions of the world have been based upon the idea of sacrifice. And the philosophic observer - he who has learned to look reverently upon the great central ideas that have dominated the thought of mankind — will hesitate long before branding this sacrificial tendency of religion as a mere relic of ancient superstition.