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Letters on Spiritual Christianity——THE GROWTH OF THE GOSPELS

My dear ——,

You force me to digress. My object just now was to shew that the life of Christ (no less than the history of the redemption of Israel) can be disentangled from “miracles”, although not from “mighty works”; and I proposed to take the six or seven principal miracles attributed to Christ by the Synoptists and to shew of each account that it may have naturally and easily crept into the Gospels without any intention to deceive.

But you will not let me go on in my own way; for you ask a question that claims immediate answer, and something more than a mere Yes or No: “Did or did not, the Publican and Apostle St. Matthew write the Gospel attributed to him? And if he did, how can he have suffered a ‘legendary’ miracle to ‘creep into’ his narrative? The same question,” you add, “applies to the Gospel of St. John. If these two Gospels, as they stand, were written by Apostles, that is, by personal disciples of Jesus and eye-witnesses of the events they profess to describe, then there is no alternative; either Jesus wrought miracles, or the Apostles lied. No eye-witness can err as you suppose some one (I know not whom) to have erred, by interpreting metaphor as though it were literal statement. Imagine Boswell, for example, misinterpreting some metaphorical expression concerning Dr. Johnson to the effect that ‘the great lexicographer was exalted by his countrymen to the pinnacle of honour and fame’ and 171consequently inferring that his statue was set up on a column like Lord Nelson or the Duke of York! The notion is too grotesque. If then Jesus did not perform miracles we are forced to conclude either that the Apostles deceived us or that the Gospels bearing their names are forgeries. Which is it?”

In order to meet this objection I must say a few words about the composition of the Gospels. For indeed your question shews a complete misapprehension of the manner in which the Gospels grew up, and of the ancient notions about authorship. In particular, you are far too free in the use of the word “forgeries.” The book called the Wisdom of Solomon contains some of the noblest sentiments that have ever found eloquent expression, and yet the philosophic author who composed it (probably in Alexandria about eight or nine centuries after Solomon’s death) does not hesitate to appeal to the Almighty in words by which he ascribes the authorship to Solomon himself: “Thou hast chosen me to be a king of Thy people and a judge of Thy sons and daughters: Thou hast commanded me to build a temple upon Thy Holy mount,” (ix. 7, 8). Now do you call him a forger? The book of Ecclesiastes, one of our own canonical books, declares that it was written by “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” and that the author was a “King over Israel in Jerusalem,” (i. 1-12). No one now (worth mentioning) believes these statements to be true. Yet would you call the composer of Ecclesiastes a forger? Probably in both cases the authors felt that they were honouring the memory of the great king in thus introducing new truths to the world under the protection of his name. I believe many other instances might be given of the literary laxity of ancient times. But besides, in the case of the Gospels, you must remember that authorship hardly came into question at all events for a long time. The story of the life of Christ would be, in some shape, current among the Church as the common property of all, as soon as the Apostles began to proclaim the Gospel. Probably it was not, for some time, reduced to writing. Among the Jews the Old Testament was spoken of as Writing or Scripture; but their most revered and sacred comments on it were retained in oral tradition: and hence all through the New Testament you will find that “Scripture” refers to the Old Testament, and that no mention is made of the doctrine about Christ except as “tradition” or “teaching.” What therefore would probably at first be current in the Church, perhaps for thirty or forty years after Christ’s death, would be simply a number of “traditions” or oral versions of the Gospel, current perhaps in different shapes at the great ecclesiastical centres, such as Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Alexandria, Rome, yet presenting a general affinity, and all claiming to represent “the Memoirs of the Apostles” or to be “the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It ought not to seem strange to you that the Church could exist, and the Good Tidings be preached for some years without the aid of written Gospels. Did not St. Paul preach the Gospel in his letters? Surely he preached it very effectually: yet his letters do not contain a single quotation from any written Gospel.[18] The same may be said of the letters attributed to St. Peter, St. James, and St. John: not one quotes a single saying of Christ, or contains a phrase that can be said, with certainty, to be borrowed from our Gospels. The book of the Acts of the Apostles, the earliest summary of Church history, contains many speeches by Apostles, one by St. James, some by St. Peter and several by St. Paul: in all these speeches only one saying of our Lord is quoted; and 173that is a saying not found in any of our extant Gospels. Conjecture might have led us to conclude that this would be so. We might reasonably have inferred that, as long as the Church had in its midst the Apostles and their companions, and as long also as they daily expected that Christ would “come”, the notion of committing the Gospel to writing for posterity would seem superfluous, distasteful, almost implying a want of faith. But when we find this conjecture confirmed by the undeniable fact that the earliest teachers and preachers of the Gospel, in their teaching as it is handed down to us, made no use whatever of our written Gospels, we may regard it as a safe conclusion that, during the first generation after the crucifixion, written Gospels were neither widely used nor much needed.

But soon the need would arise. One after another the Apostles and their companions would pass away, and Christ’s immediate “coming” would now be less and less sanguinely anticipated. The great mass of the earliest Christians were either Jews or proselytes to the Jewish religion; but now the Gentiles, who had come to Christ without first passing through the Law of Moses, would become the majority in the Church; and for them the Old Testament would not have the same pre-eminent title as “Writing” or “Scripture.” For these Gentiles too the old Rabbinical prejudice against committing the teaching of the Church to writing would have no weight. Now therefore in several churches simultaneous efforts would be made to write down the traditions current amongst the brethren; and hence we find St. Luke prefacing his own Gospel with the remark that he was induced to attempt this task because “many” others had attempted it. St. Luke could hardly have written thus if one authentic and apostolic document already occupied the ground and stood pre-eminent in the Church as the written record of Christ’s life by an eye-witness. That there was no such document, known to St. Luke, we may also infer from his acknowledgment of his obligations to those who were “eye-witnesses and ministers of the word.” It says that he shapes his narrative “as they handed down the tradition” for that is the meaning of his word not “as they wrote the tradition.” You must have noticed that the extant titles of the Gospels declare them to have been written not “by,” but “according to” their several authors. The explanation (which has not been successfully impugned) is that, even in the later times in which their titles were given, the old belief continued, that the men who compiled them did no more than commit to writing their version of a tradition already current. They did not compose, they reported, the tradition; the Gospel was supposed to be the same in all Churches, but here “according to” one version or writer, there “according to” another. The Apostles, being with one or two exceptions mere fishermen and unlearned men, ignorant of letters, could not very well be supposed to be authors of written compositions; but St. Matthew, being a tax-gatherer, would necessarily be an expert writer, and therefore one of the earliest traditions committed to writing would be naturally attributed to his penmanship. But the evidence for St. Matthew’s authorship appears, when tested, to be extremely slight. It was the universal belief of the early Church that the Gospel according to St. Matthew was originally written in Hebrew, and Jerome has quoted, as coming from the Hebrew original, a passage not found in our Greek Gospel of St. Matthew. Even when this Gospel is quoted by the earliest writers, it is frequently quoted inexactly, and never connected by them with the name of St. Matthew as the author. We ought not to infer from these unnamed and inexact quotations that the writers did not recognize St. Matthew as the author for their habit is almost invariably to quote Gospels, simply as Gospel, inexactly, and without mentioning the name of the Evangelist. But this unfortunate habit leaves us without any early and trustworthy evidence for St. Matthew’s authorship. On the whole, then, there is very little evidence for supposing that any part of our present Gospel according to St. Matthew was written by an Apostle or by an eye-witness of Christ’s life, and there is very much evidence tending to show that such a supposition is extremely improbable.

Even if we grant that parts of the Gospel were composed by an Apostle, it by no means follows that the whole was. There was a very natural tendency, in the earliest days of the Church—when the traditional Gospel was as it were everybody’s property and had not yet acquired the authority of Scripture—to make the tradition as full, as edifying, and as correct, as possible. If we may judge from the style of the book of Revelation (which is said on rather more substantial grounds than are generally alleged for the authorship of most of the books of the New Testament, to have been the work of the Apostle John) the earliest Greek traditions must have been composed in an ungrammatical, mongrel kind of Greek, which must have been as distasteful to the well-educated Christian as cockney English or pigeon English would be to us. This could not long be tolerated in traditions that were repeated in the presence of the whole congregation; and alterations of style, for edification, would naturally facilitate alterations of matter, also for edification. The love of completeness would introduce many corrections and sometimes corruptions. Often, in those early times, the teacher, catechist, or scribe, who knew some additional fact tending to Christ’s glory, and not mentioned in the tradition or document, would think that he was not doing his duty if he did not add it to his oral or written version of the tradition. Even in MSS. of the fourth or fifth centuries we have abundant instances to shew how this tendency multiplied interpolations; principally by interpolating passages from one Gospel into another, but sometimes by interpolating traditions not found now in any Gospel with which we are acquainted. Occasionally there are also corruptions of omission, arising from the desire to omit difficult or apparently inconsistent passages; but by far the more common custom is to add. If this corrupting tendency was in force in the fourth century when the Christian religion was on the point of becoming the religion of the empire, and when the sacred books of Christianity had attained to a position of authority in the Church not a whit below the books of the Old Testament, you may easily imagine what a multitude of interpolations and amplifications must have crept into the original tradition at a time when it was still young, unauthoritative, and plastic, during the first two or three generations that followed the death of Christ. The result of all these considerations is that we are not obliged and this, to my mind, is a great relief to suppose that any passage which we may be forced to reject from our Gospels as false, was written by an Apostle.

I say this is to me a great relief, but perhaps it is not so to you. Your notion of what the Gospels ought to be, is perhaps borrowed from a passage in Paley’s Evidences where he likens the evidences for the miracles of Christ to that of twelve eye-witnesses, all ready to be martyrs in attestation of the truth of their testimony; and you are shocked perhaps when you find that the Gospels fall very far indeed below the level of such a standard of evidence. What would have seemed best to you would have been an exact record of Christ’s teaching and acts, drawn up by one of the Apostles in the name of the Twelve, duly dated and signed by all, and circulated and received by the whole Church from the day after the Ascension down to the present time. And I quite agree with you. But then, as we have seen in the history of astronomy and in the history of the Old Testament, it has not pleased God to reveal Himself or His works to men in the way which men have thought best. Now you are not indeed obliged to infer that, because revelation in the Old Testament was accompanied by illusion, therefore revelation in the New Testament must have contained a similar alloy; but you ought at least to be prepared for such a discovery. For me, it would be a terrible shock indeed if I were forced to suppose that a faithful Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ had wilfully misrepresented the truth with a view to glorify His Master: but it is no shock at all to find that the highest revelation of God to man has been, like all other revelations, to some extent misinterpreted, obscured, materialized. I have learned to accept this as an inevitable law of our present nature. If it had been God’s will to suspend this law of nature in favour of the New Testament, I think He would have consistently gone further, and miraculously prevented the scribes from making errors, or posterity from perpetuating them. But how can I think God has done this, when I know that even the words of the Lord’s own Prayer are variously reported in the two Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke, and that every page of a critical edition of the New Testament teems with various readings between which the ablest commentators are perplexed to decide?

You must therefore make up your mind to believe that the earliest Gospel traditions and even that triply attested tradition[19] which is common to the first three Gospels and which runs through the three with a separate character of its own, like a distinguishable stream passed through several phases before they assumed their present shape. In my next letter I shall probably ask you to consider what phases they passed through; but you may perhaps expect me to say something at once about the Fourth Gospel; for to that book many of the previous remarks do not apply. It was much later than the rest; it has little in subject-matter, and nothing at all in style, in common with the rest; it contains scarcely a word of the Common Tradition which pervades the first three Gospels; it probably passed through no phases and suffered few accretions; and it differs from the other Gospels, even from St. Luke’s, in bearing a far more manifest impress of personal authorship. The three synoptic Gospels really agree with their titles in representing the Gospel “according to” their several authors; but the Fourth Gospel (although, like the rest, preceded by “according to”) is a Gospel written “by” whoever wrote it.

The question is, who did write it? If it was written by an Apostle, an eye-witness of the life of Christ, then we have to face—I am not sure we have to accept—your alternative: “Either Jesus worked miracles, or the Apostles lied.” But there is very little evidence (worth calling evidence) for the hypothesis that an Apostle wrote it, and much evidence against that hypothesis. St. John, the reputed author, is said, on the evidence of Justin Martyr, to have written the Apocalypse; which, while it resembles in style what we might have expected from a Galilean fisherman, differs entirely from the style of the Fourth Gospel. Whoever wrote the Gospel, we may be sure that he did not reproduce the words of Jesus, but gave rather what appeared to him to be their latent and spiritual meaning. This can be proved as follows. Suppose three writers—say Boswell, Mrs. Thrale, and Goldsmith—had composed accounts of the life and sayings of Dr. Johnson, widely differing in the subject-matter and style of the narrative, but closely agreeing in the character of Johnson’s thoughts, as reported by them, and very often agreeing in the actual words imputed to Johnson; and suppose a fourth writer, say Burke, had written his reminiscences of Dr. Johnson, which entirely differed in language, in thought, and in subject-matter from the first three: would you not say at once that this was strong proof, that Burke did not report Dr. Johnson’s actual words, and that he had probably tinged them with his own style and thought? But if furthermore Burke reported Dr. Johnson’s words and long discourses in the same language as he reported Sheridan’s, and in language indistinguishable from his own contextual narrative, then you would, I am sure, find it difficult to be patient with any one who, through force of prejudice and pleasing associations, obstinately maintained that Burke’s biography was equally faithful and exact with the three other concordant or synoptic biographies. Now this comparison exactly represents the facts. You will find several of the most learned and painstaking commentators differing as to where the introductory words of the author of the Fourth Gospel cease, and where John the Baptist’s words begin; and the style of our Lord’s discourses in the Fourth Gospel is quite indistinguishable from the style of the author himself. As to the immense difference, in respect of style and thought and subject-matter, between the Synoptic Gospels, and the Fourth Gospel, you must have felt it, even as a child, reading them in English.

I must refer you to the article on “Gospels” in the Encyclopædia Britannica for what I believe to be the most probable explanation of the origin of this remarkable work. It is there shown that there are extraordinary points of similarity between the emblematic language and emblematic acts attributed to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, and the emblematic conceptions of the Alexandrine philosopher Philo, who flourished some sixty or seventy years before that Gospel was written. Dealing, for instance, with the dialogue between Jesus and the woman of Samaria near the well at Sychem, the writer of that article shews that, in the works of Philo, the well is an emblem of the search after knowledge; Sychem is an emblem of materialism; the “five husbands”, or, as Philo calls them, “five seducers” represent the five senses so that the whole dialogue appears to contain a poetic appeal to the heathen world, to turn from the materialistic knowledge which can never satisfy, to the knowledge of the Word of God which is the “living water”. Still more remarkable is Philo’s emblematic use of Lazarus (or Eleazar, for the words are the same) as a type of dead humanity, helpless and lifeless till it has been raised up by the help of the Lord. But into this I have no space to enter. If you care to pursue the subject, I must refer you to the article above mentioned. Canon Westcott has pointed out that in arrangement and structure the Fourth Gospel has some distinct poetic features. I should go further and say that, in this Gospel, History is subordinated to poetic purpose, and that its narratives of incidents, resting sometimes on a basis of fact, but more often on a basis of metaphor, are intended not so much to describe incidents as to lead the reader to spiritual conclusions.

We have no account of the authorship of the Fourth Gospel till the year 170 A.D., and this we find to be “already legendary.”[20] It is there said that, being requested by his fellow-disciples and bishops to write a Gospel, John desired them to fast for three days and then to relate to one another what revelation each had received. It was then revealed to the Apostle Andrew that “while all endeavoured to recall their experiences, John should write everything in his own name”. No confidence can be placed in the exactness of testimony that comes so long after the event; but it points to some kind of joint contribution or revision such as is implied in John xxi. 24: “This is the disciple which testifieth of these things and we know that his testimony is true.” That the Gospel was written “in the name of John” by some pupil of his—perhaps by some namesake—and revised and issued in the name of John by the Elders of the Ephesian Church, is by no means improbable. In some matters of fact, for example in distinguishing between the Passover and “the last supper,” the Fourth Gospel corrects an (apparent) error of the Synoptic Gospels, a correction that possibly proceeded from the Apostle John; and perhaps the solemn asseveration as to the issue of blood and water from the side of Jesus (“And he that hath seen hath borne witness, and his witness is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye also may believe”) may be a reminiscence of some special testimony from the aged Apostle; but it is impossible to ascertain how far emblematic and historical narratives are blended in such passages as the dialogue with the Samaritan woman, the miracle at Cana, and the raising of Lazarus. The author was convinced (like every other believer, at that time) that Jesus did work many miracles, and could have worked any kind of miracle; but he had noted the unspiritual tendency to magnify the “mighty works” of Jesus as merely “mighty:” he therefore selected from the traditions before him those in which the spiritual and emblematic meaning was predominant. In doing this, he sometimes took a spiritual metaphor and expanded it into a spiritual history. Again, he had also noted an unspiritual tendency to lay undue stress upon the exact words of Jesus; and he therefore determined—besides giving prominence to the promise of Jesus concerning His Spirit, which was to guide the disciples into all truth—to exhibit, in his Gospel, the spiritual purport of Christ’s doctrine rather than to repeat each saying as it was actually delivered.

As I write these words, with the pages of the Gospel open before me, my eye falls upon the story of the raising of Lazarus: “Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth on me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth on me shall never die.” Is it possible, I say to myself, that Jesus did not say these entrancing words? And how often does the same question arise as one turns over the leaves: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you:” “Yet a little while and the world beholdeth me no more; but ye behold me: because I live, ye shall live also.” Could any one at any time have invented such sayings? Still less, is it possible they could have been invented in the times of Trajan or Hadrian by any Asiatic Greek or Alexandrian Jew? But truth compels me to answer that, just as the Asiatic Jew St. Paul, although he never saw or heard Jesus, was inspired by the Spirit of Jesus to utter words of spiritual truth and beauty worthy of Jesus Himself, so an Asiatic Greek or Alexandrian Jew of the time of Trajan may have been prompted by the same Spirit to penetrate to the very depths of the meaning of Jesus and to express some of the conclusions to be derived from His sayings more clearly than we can see them even in the words of Jesus Himself, as they are recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. I do not see on what principle we can so limit the operation of the Holy Spirit as to say it could not extend, in its most perfect force, beyond the age of Domitian or Nerva or even Trajan. Having before me the doctrine of the Synoptic Gospels, I am forbidden by mere considerations of style and literary criticism from believing that Jesus used the exact words, “I am the true vine,” “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the light of the world,” “I am the resurrection and the life;” but I accept these sayings as divinely inspired, and as being far deeper and fuller expressions of the spiritual nature of Jesus than any of the inferences which I could draw for myself from the Synoptic doctrine. Do not then say that I “reject” the Fourth Gospel. I accept all that is essential in it; and this I accept on far safer grounds than many who would accuse me of rejecting it. For their acceptance might be shaken to-morrow if some new piece of evidence appeared decisively shewing that the Gospel was not written by John the Apostle; but my acceptance is independent of authorship, and is based upon the testimony of my conscience.

Surely you must feel that it would be absurd for one who tests religious doctrine to some extent by experience and by history, to reject the Fourth Gospel because it is in a great measure emblematic, and because it was not written by the man who was supposed to have written it. Be the author who he may, I shall never cease to feel grateful to him. The all-embracing sweep of view which enabled him to look on the Incarnation as the central incident of the world’s history and to set forth Christ as the Eternal Word and Eternal Son, not dependent for this claim upon a mere Miraculous Conception; the spiritual contempt for mere “mighty works,” which leads him repeatedly to claim faith for Jesus Himself firstly, and for the “words” of Jesus secondly, and only as a last reserve to demand belief “for the works’ sake;” and the true intuition with which he fastens on the promise of Jesus (only hinted at in the Synoptic Gospels) that He would be present with His disciples at every time and place and that He would give them “a voice,” and a Spirit not to be gainsaid—from which brief suggestion the author worked out in detail the promise of the Holy Spirit, and predicted the nobler and ampler future of the Church these true, and profound, and spiritual intuitions will always excite my deepest gratitude and admiration. The doctrine of the Eternal Word had its origin perhaps in the schools of Alexandria, and certainly formed no part of the teaching of Jesus; but, Christianized as it is by the author of the Fourth Gospel, it commends itself as a key to many mysteries, and (like the Fourth Gospel itself) it appears to be but one among many illustrations of the divine development of Christian doctrine; “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of Truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth.” In a word, without the Fourth Gospel, Christendom might (it would seem) have failed forever to appreciate the true nature of its Redeemer.

I cannot indeed repress some regret that this most marvellously endowed minister and prophet of Christ should have been allowed to select a poetic and even illusive form in order to publish his divine truths. Hitherto I have been able with pleasure and satisfaction to see the illusive integument being gradually separated from the inner truth, as in astronomy and in the history of the Old Testament. Now comes a point where I myself should like to recoil. But how puerile and faithless should I be if I assumed that God would give to the world along with His divine revelation precisely that modicum of illusion (and no more) which I myself personally am just able to receive with pleasure! Let us rather follow where, as Plato says, “the argument leads us.” Or, if you prefer me to quote from the Fourth Gospel itself, let us follow the guidance of Him who is both “the Way and the Truth.”

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