THE REJECTED GOSPELS BY HENRY TYRRELL 1854
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The ignorance exhibited by the majority of professing Christians, of the ancient writings on which their religion is founded, is very remarkable. An amiable young lady of my acquaintance, possessed of an average amount of intelligence, was quite astonished on hearing that Jesus Christ was a Jew! It seemed incomprehensible to her that the Being whom she had regarded as the perfection of mental, moral, and manly beauty, could have been one of a race always associated in her mind with dirty habits, low cunning, old clothes, sponges, and pencils.
The books forming that part of the Bible called the New Testament, and regarded by the Christians as more especially sacred, were selected from a number of others at the memorable Council of Nice, which was held in the year 325, and presided over by the Roman Emperor Constantine. At this Council 318 bishops debated concerning which books were to be deemed the Word of God, and which should be rejected as apocryphal. It was confidently asserted that those which they selected must necessarily be approved of by the Deity—as, of course, the Holy Spirit resided in such good men and unfolded to them the Divine will. A contemporary writer, however, observes that except the Emperor, and the learned bishop Eusebius, these holy men "were a set of illiterate, simple creatures that understood nothing." Another ancient writer relates that having "promiscuously put all the books that were referred to the Council for determination under the communion-table in a church, they besought the Lord that the inspired writings might get upon the table, while the spurious ones remained beneath, and that it happened accordingly!"
Not possessing a very implicit faith in this legend, I presume that the Council exercised their judgment in selecting such books as seemed least offensive to the reason of mankind, and most likely to be accepted with veneration by a still doubting world.* It is probable that some books were voted to be sacred and inspired by a very small majority, perhaps only by a single voice. On the other hand, some books might have been rejected as apocryphal by a few voices only—nay, perhaps a single vote turned the scale against them, and thus deprived Christendom of some blessed piece of revelation quite as holy and inspired as those now contained in the Bible! If the accepted books of the New Testament contain the Word of God and the Bread of Life, there must certainly be some spiritual nourishment in the rejected ones. I think it is a duty on the part of the Christian to examine rigidly before he presumes to disregard them. Judging from this point of view, he may be slighting the revelations of Deity, and trampling beneath his feet the inspired utterances of his Creator. For my own part, I think the rejected gospels quite as inspired as the others, though they are scarcely so interesting, or related with so much ability. The Council of Bishops certainly had the discretion to select those writings that best suited their purpose. I suspect the gospels concerning the infancy of Jesus Christ were rejected, not so much upon the ground that they were not the genuine productions of the apostles, or their associates, but because they represent Jesus in a very unamiable light; because they show him to have been a mischievous and malignant boy. Perhaps this language may shock the believer and the waverer; but I assure them that much stronger censure is justified by the circumstances related. Of that the reader shall speedily judge. I have no wish to shock the feelings of any one. I would rather be gentle with the prejudices of sincere minds; but I must speak that which I am assured is the truth. If I indulge in a little personality about any story that strikes me as being ludicrous, I do not wish to scoff; I would rather reason and try to convince. Let us reflect on these subjects without passion, or ill-feeling. If the Christian can show me that these so-called revelations are God's Word, I will believe with him and worship. If I can show him that they are extravagant, unnatural, and mischievous inventions—the spawn of ignorance and fraud—I ask him to join with me in thoughtful enquiry. The clergymen say, "Let us pray together;" I say, "Let us Think together!"
All the books rejected from the New Testament, that are now extant, were collected and published by Mr. Hone (famous for his three trials for blasphemy), in one volume, in the year 1820. As that volume is not readily to be procured, I propose, in the course of this lecture, to give a brief account, or digest of it. The enquiry will be interesting to the Freethinker, and is a duty imperative upon the Christian. The latter cannot be held blameless for neglecting to possess himself of any information that is to be had concerning the life and character of the present Messiah, In the preface to his volume, which Mr. Hone has called "The Apocryphal New Testament," he makes this pertinent enquiry:—"After the writings, contained in the New Testament were selected from the numerous gospels and epistles then in existence, what became of the books that were rejected by the compilers?"
Assuredly the Christian priesthood should give us a little information upon this point, but they avoid doing so. I suspect they have already more revelation upon their hands than they can well manage, and that they do not wish to increase their responsibility in that direction. But it is scarcely honest to take no notice of a collection of very ancient writings which were devoutly believed in by Christians during the first four centuries that elapsed after the crucifixion of Jesus; especially, as those writings contain so much information concerning the infancy and boyhood of the Founder of their religion. The Christian priest may be guilty of this neglect; but I, a priest of reason, will not follow his example; I will not permit Christians to cast aside and forget such parts of the (so-called) sacred writings, as are calculated to lead rational minds to reject their scheme of salvation. Let us have all, or none. I will not sanction any juggling with the Scriptures. It is criminal to select only the best of those writings, and then strive to consign the rest to the dark, sluggish gulf of oblivion.
The question has, of course, been raised in modern times, as to the authenticity of these supposed sacred writings. Were they written by the apostles and their associates, or were they forgeries by some zealous early Christians? This is the most important point concerning them. It is probable that some of them were not written by the saints whose names they bear, but there are strong evidences in favour of the genuine character of the rest. Learned writers on theology are divided in opinion upon this question, and many names of authority are arrayed on either side of it. It must be urged, in favour of the probably genuine nature of these writings, that they were translated into English by a learned and amiable prelate, William Wake, who became Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of George 1. He believed "in the genuineness of most of them, and has at some length expressed his reasons for doing so.
After all, however the Freethinker may doubt, I do not think that the Christian should be very sceptical upon this matter. Judged upon his own principles, it better becomes him to believe them than to reason about them. Are not his feet guided by the light of faith? Why should he be more particular in examining the apocryphal than the accepted books of the Bible. After the contradictions and marvels which he accepts and believes in, it does not become him to exhibit much incredulity. After swallowing camels it is unseemly to strain at gnats. It is wiser for him to follow the example of a dear friend of mine, a gentleman of high scientific attainments, who never reasons on the subject of religion, but says, with a pleasant and meaning smile upon his face, "My dear Tyrrell, I believe everything: thank God I believe everything. I want to believe, and I will believe."
Thus much of preface, I will now proceed immediately to the work. About one-third of the Apocryphal New Testament refers to Mary, the mother of Jesus; to Joseph, his assumed father; and to the infancy and boyhood of Jesus himself. The remaining two-thirds are occupied by the adventures of Paul and a venerable lady martyr, named Thecla; the epistles of Clement, Barnabas, and Ignatius, and the three books of Hermas, entitled his Visions, his Commands, and his Similitudes.
The first of the rejected books is a very short one, called "The Gospel of the Birth of Mary." The authorship is atttibuted to St. Matthew, and the work was received as genuine by some of the early Christians. It gives an account of the birth and life of "the blessed and ever-glorious Virgin Mary." Her parents, Joachim and Anna, were respectable and religious people, who had lived together for twenty years without children; a circumstance they much regretted, as among the ancient Jews it was esteemed a reproach for a married woman to be without offspring. Her barrenness was regarded as a punishment from heaven for her sins. Anna was, therefore, delighted at the appearance of an angel who assured her she should have a daughter, who, says the text, "As she shall be in a miraculous manner born of one that was barren, so shall she, while yet a virgin, in a way unparalleled, bring forth the Son of the Most High God.
Anna, in a transport of gratitude, dedicated her infant daughter to the service of the Lord, and had her brought up to a religious life in the temple. When Mary arrived at the years of womanhood, she was regarded as a person of some beauty, and the priests suddenly became very anxious to have her respectably married! Accordingly, a number of unmarried men were commanded to make their appearance in the temple, and to lay their rods upon the altar. At the same time it was declared that the man from whose rod a flower should bud forth, and on the top of which the Spirit of the Lord should perch, in the likeness of a dove, must marry the young virgin Mary. Amongst the unmarried persons assembled on this occasion was an elderly widower; an honest simple man, named Joseph: he was a carpenter by trade, and a terrible bungler at it, which circumstance we should have soon learnt from these gospels, even if another of them had not assured us that "he was not very skilful at his carpenter's trade."
When the officiating priest had received the rods, he retired to pray over them, and presently returning, gave them back to their respective owners. Immediately Joseph's rod budded, and a dove flew out of the top of it and perched upon his head. The priest, therefore, declared it to be the will of heaven that the carpenter should marry the young virgin. Poor Joseph did not want a wife, and he refused to take her, saying, "I am an old man and have children, but she is young, and 1 fear lest I should appear ridiculous in Israel." The poor man, however, was forced into compliance—and taking the young lady home, he said, "Behold I have taken thee from the temple of the Lord, and now I will leave thee in my house; I must go to mind my trade of building. The Lord be with thee."
After an absence of three months the poor carpenter returned home with the intention of marrying the young lady to whom before he had only been betrothed. To his great astonishment he found the virgin in "the way that ladies wish to be who love their lords." The surprise was an unpleasant one, and he thought of sending her about her business. He did not execute that intention, because he dreamed that an angel appeared and informed him that, notwithstanding appearances, Mary was still a virgin: "For that," said the celestial messenger, "which is begotten in her, and now distresses your mind, is not the work of man, but of the Holy Ghost." Joseph, whose poor brain a few more rocks in his cradle would have completely addled, was quite satisfied, asked no more questions, but married the young virgin at once; like an easy good-natured soul as he was.
The rationale of this account seems to be that Mary was seduced by the priest under whose care she had been left, and that Joseph was selected for her husband on account of his well-known simplicity of character. The little bit of conjuring with the rods was a matter of small difficulty in comparison with the supposed miracles performed by the priests of Egypt, to awe the minds of the people. The artful priest, who was a better hand at his trade than Joseph was at carpentering, had an opportunity of preparing the rods while he took them away under the pretence of praying over them. As to the dream, Mary, no doubt, persuaded the good-natured old fellow into inventing that tale to save her character; or, perhaps she had art enough even to make him believe that he actually had dreamed it. This is the more likely, when we consider the severity with which the Jewish laws visited the errors of frail women; they were subject to be put to death for having committed folly in Israel.
The second book, called "The Protevangelion," is an historical account of the birth of Jesus, attributed to his cousin, James the lesser. It tells us that the infant prophet was born in a cave, not in a stable, as related in the accepted gospels. Some commentators have endeavoured, rather amusingly, to reconcile this discrepancy by supposing that there was a stable in the cave. During the labour of the mother, the cave was illuminated by a brilliant light, exceeding that of the sun, which gradually decreased until the birth of the miraculous babe. A woman, named Salome, who was present, and presumed to doubt that a virgin could be a mother, had her hand instantly withered, for her want of faith; but it was restored to a healthy state on her repenting and touching the infant.
The two books following the Protevangelion are called the "First and Second Gospels of the Infancy of Jesus Christ." These works were received as Divine revelation as early as the second century; but they seem after that period to have fallen into discredit. They abound in relations of miracles of the most startling kind; but, considered as evidences of a supernatural mission, these miracles are as unnecessary and frivolous as they are romantic. We are assured that the infant Jesus spoke while in his cradle, and told his mother that he was the Son of God, and sent into the world for the salvation of mankind. That when, as an infant, he was carried into the temple, he shone as a pillar of light, and that "the angels stood around him, adoring him, as a king's guards stand around him." That when the wise men of the East offered to Mary gold, frankincense, and myrrh, she, in return, delicately presented them with one of her infant's swaddling-clothes; which unpleasant gift, it is added, they received as a valuable equivalent. That when these wise men of the East, who were fire-worshippers, dedicated the swaddling-cloth to their god, by throwing it into the fire, the flames refused to consume it. That the son of an Egyptian priest, possessed by many devils, was miraculously cured by some of the clothes of the infant Jesus (which had been washed and hung out to dry) falling upon him; upon which the devils came out at his mouth and flew away in the shapes of crows and serpents. That all the idols of Egypt fell down prostrate at the entrance of Jesus into that country. That a girl, who, being possessed by the devil, used to strip herself naked, and stand in lonely places, and in cross-roads, and in church-yards, and throw stones at passers-by, was miraculously restored to her senses in consequence of the Virgin Mary pitying her. That a dumb bride had her speech suddenly restored upon kissing the wonderful infant. That a young man, who, by means of sorcery, had been transformed into a mule, recovered his original shape on the infant Jesus being placed astride his back. That a dying child was restored to instant health by being laid upon the bed of the little Jesus, and covered with his clothes.
There is also a wonderful story of a girl to whom Satan frequently appeared in the shape of a monstrous dragon, which sucked her blood, so that she resembled a living corpse. The afflicted creature told her story to the Virgin Mary, who is always alluded to as the Virgin, but she was eventually the mother of a tolerably large family. Mary, who gave her also one of the swaddling-clothes of the infant Jesus. Next time the dragon came, we are told that the girl put the "cloth upon her head, and about her eyes, and shewed it to him, and presently there issued forth from the swaddling-cloth flames and burning coals, and fell upon the dragon." This was a reception by no means to the taste of the beast, who speedily put his tail between his legs and retired in confusion. It will scarcely excite surprise to hear that Judas Iscariot, when a boy, was possessed by the devil, and went about trying to bite every one he met; he attempted to bite his young companion Jesus, and struck him violently on the right side, but the wonderful boy cast Satan out of Judas, and the fiend ran away in the likeness of a mad dog.
We are told that when Jesus was seven years old, he and several of his playmates kneaded some soft clay into various shapes, such as asses, oxen, birds, and other figures, much as I suppose as dirty little boys now make mud-pies in the gutters of blind alleys and quiet out-of-the-way streets. Each juvenile artist strove to excel his fellows, but the future prophet would not be outdone; he capped their work by making his clay figures walk or fly as he commanded; upon this, the parents of his play-fellows warned their children to avoid him in future, because he must certainly be a sorcerer.
I have said that Joseph was by no means a skilful carpenter; yet we learn that he received an order from the king of Jerusalem to make him a throne. Poor Joseph, who must have been as slow as he was dull, was two years over his work, and then found he had made it too narrow; it wanted two spans on each side of the appointed measure. The king became angry, and the bungling workman was much distressed; but his imputed son comforted him by saying, "Fear not, neither be cast down; do thou lay hold on one side of the throne, and I will the other, and we will bring it to its just dimensions." This was no sooner said than done. Joseph pulled at one side and Jesus at the other, and the throne was miraculously drawn out to its proper width.
I will relate a few more of these miracles and then leave them for the belief of the pious and the amusement of the thoughtful. Jesus and several other boys being at play upon a housetop, one of them fell off the roof and was instantly killed. The other boys all running away, Jesus was accused by the child's parents of having thrown their son off; he not only denied the imputation, but appealed to the dead boy, who answered, "Thou didst not throw me down, but such a one did." On another occasion a troublesome Jew-boy, named Hanani, having interfered with Jesus because the latter was playing on the Sabbath, was instantly struck dead! "Another time," says the text, "when the Lord Jesus was coming home in the evening with Joseph, he met a boy who ran so hard against him that he threw him down; to whom the Lord Jesus said, 'As thou hast thrown me down, so shall thou fall, nor ever rise; and at that moment the boy fell down and died.'"
I think it will be admitted that I was correct in my supposition as to the cause which led to the rejection of these writings from the New Testament. In the passages I have just referred to Jesus is represented as a passionate, revengeful, and remorseless boy. He causes the death of one lad because he interferes 'with him at play, and that of another because he accidentally run's up against him. These two cases of murder are not the only ones that are recorded of the youthful Jesus. Ludicrous as these traditions are, they could scarcely be related in connection with a child of an amiable character. In considering them it must be remembered that they are not the equivocal traditions of modern times, but that they were actually current, and believed in by pious people in the early ages of Christianity.
It may be reasoned that these two Gospels are forgeries—that is, that they are not so authentic as the received ones, because the character of the boy Jesus, as delineated in them, differs so much from that of the mature Jesus. It is difficult for the inventors of fables to preserve an exact consistency, but the disparity is scarcely so great as it appears at a first view. The boy of the "Rejected Gospels"—despite his destructive propensities—works many miracles in the cause of mercy, as well as the man in the accepted Scriptures. Most of the wonders that I have spoken of, when not frivolous, were humane—acts of a similarly healing kind to those attributed to the obscure preacher of Galilee. The destructive element in the character of Jesus was probably toned down by an intercourse with the world as he approached to man-hood. It was not, however, extinguished; for an occasional petulant and combative feeling still existed in him. Witness his unnecessary cursing of the fruitless fig-tree, which instantly withered away; his fierce reprimand of his devoted apostle Peter—"Get thee behind me, Satan;" and his almost frensied denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees, related in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, where, after thirty verses of vituperation, he bursts out with, "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?" Here also, as elsewhere, he preached the awful doctrine, so repugnant to the character of a benevolent mind, of an eternity of hideous tortures as a punishment for the fleeting (and in some cases venal sins of the hour. I cannot persuade myself that a man of an unmixed merciful character could do this. Gentle as Christ was in many of his acts towards the poor and afflicted, still the religious aspect of his character was stern and bitter. His doctrine was, believe in me and ye shall be saved; disbelieve in my divinity and ye shall be damned. He would not tolerate dissent—there must be no evasion and there would be no escape. This was not merciful: to condemn millions of men and women to a fate to which the most revolting and protracted death possible would be a blessing! And for what dark complication of crimes was this hideous punishment to be incurred? For none whatever; but simply because the offenders entertained a doubt or disbelief on a subject peculiarly calculated to create doubt or disbelief. Why, the act of preaching this hell-fire doctrine, this eternity of heaped-up and unutterable agonies, this never-ending burning, screaming, writhing, and gnashing of teeth, was really more inhuman than the act related of the boy Christ, when he smote dead the rude or thoughtless lad who ran against him!
Damnation as a punishment for disbelief! Why, for what cause should Jews or Gentiles have believed the monstrous fables concerning his birth and mission? Miracles, even if really performed, could not be any evidence of his divinity, for they had been done also by Moses, by the prophets, and by sorcerers. The wisest and most influential men of Christ's own time and nation also condemned his pretensions as blasphemy, and regarded his conduct as seditious. In his own days his career was a failure. He was tried and condemned for irreligion, and when writhing in mortal agony upon that cruel gibbet, the cross, he uttered a wild, plaintive, heart-broken exclamation, which conveys to my mind that he had up to that time deluded himself, but that then, upon the verge of a dishonoured grave, and exposed to the ungenerous taunts of those who in that sad hour mockingly asked him to prove his divinity, he felt that his life had been a mistake, and his celestial origin a fanatic's dream. How else can we read the tragic despairing cry—"My God! my God! why hast thou forsaken me!"
In the two Gospels of the Infancy of Jesus, many other supernatural incidents are related besides those I have already referred to, such as his causing the sudden death of his schoolmaster, when the latter was about to chastise him for forwardness. But I think I have dwelt long enough upon this portion of the writing contained in Mr. Hone's volume. There is nothing in these two books that can make any one wiser or better, not a single elevating thought or noble expression pregnant with truth or beauty. Metaphorically speaking, they are a wild waste of thorns in which not one sweet flower can be gathered; an overcast sky in which not one bright star throws its pale radiance on the traveller's path. I have, however, called attention to them, because society should know all that has been written of old concerning the Hebrew teacher whom Europe has selected as the object of its inexplicable adoration.
The two Gospels of the Infancy are followed by a letter which, tradition says, Jesus wrote in reply to one he had received from Abgarus, King of Edessa. It is commonly believed to be a forgery; and even were it genuine, it is far too trivial and commonplace a production to need much comment.
I pass to the "Gospel of Nicodemus, formerly called the Acts of Pontius Pilate." Of this book Archbishop Wake says, "Although this Gospel is, by some among the learned, supposed to have been really written by Nicodemus, who became a disciple of Jesus Christ, and conversed with him—others conjecture that it was a forgery, towards the close of the third century, by some zealous believer, who, observing that there had been appeals made by the Christians of the former age to the Acts of Pilate, but that such Acts could not be produced, imagined it would be of service to Christianity to fabricate and publish this Gospel, as it would both confirm the Christians under persecution, and convince the heathens of the truth of the Christian religion." However that may be I cannot say; but this I can, and must say, that the author of this Gospel, whoever he might be, was a monstrously extravagant and most unblushing liar! Amongst all the superstitious fooleries that have been imposed upon the credulous world, it is difficult to find anything more impudently bold and more miserably worthless than this effete production, once accepted as inspired. Having related the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, Nicodemus refers to the miracles said to have attended that event. Amongst them was the resurrection of many saints, or zealous believers, from their graves, who, we are told in the New Testament, went into the city and appeared to many of their friends. Thomas Paine very naturally asked a few jocose questions as to the conduct of these resuscitated saints, and of what eventually became of them. He enquires "Whether they went to their former habitations, and reclaimed their wives, their husbands, and their property, and how they were received? whether they entered ejectments for the recovery of their possessions, or brought actions of crim. con. against the rival interlopers? whether they remained on earth and followed their former occupation of preaching or working? or whether they died again, or went back to their graves and buried themselves?"
Now Nicodemus, or whoever wrote the Gospel which bears his name, seems to have anticipated these questions of the great modern theological reformer, and to have provided answers for them accordingly. He tells us that two sons of Simeon, named Charinus and Lenthius, were among those who rose from the grave on this solemn occasion; that at the earnest entreaty of the Jews they wrote down all that had occurred to them since their deaths, and that having done so, being only permitted to remain three days on earth, they—what does the reader suppose?—died again, perhaps. No: they vanished! The account of what Charinus and Lenthius saw and heard after they were dead and buried occupies eight chapters, and is prefaced by the following solemn, but under the circumstances impudent, exordium:— "O, Lord Jesus and Father, who art God, also the resurrection and life of the dead, give us leave to declare thy mysteries which we saw after death, belonging to thy cross; for we are sworn by thy name: for thou hast forbid thy servants to declare the secret things which were wrought by thy Divine power in hell."
I must decline giving any detailed account of all the wonders that Charinus and Lenthius saw. Suffice it to say, that they went down into the depth of hell, into "the blackness of darkness," where the place being afterwards illuminated by "a substantial purple-coloured light," they saw, oddly enough, Adam, and Seth, and Isaiah, together with all the patriarchs and prophets. It is generally supposed that these venerable people had from the first taken up permanent quarters in another place, but according to Nicodemus it is not so. The place he describes, though called hell, seems to be not so much one of torment as a kind of purgatory, where saints and sinners each took their turn. A quarrel is then described between Satan and Beelzebub,the prince of hell, which is interrupted by the arrival of Christ, who tramples upon Death, seizes the prince of hell, and after depriving him of all his power, returns to heaven, taking Adam with him.
The book called "The Acts of Paul and Thecla," refers to the adventures of a maiden of Iconium, who, it informs us, by the preaching of the apostle, became converted to Christianity, and after a life of wonderful piety, during which she was delivered alive from the flames, and from the jaws of hungry lions, at length, at the tender age of ninety, to save her modesty from the rudeness of some drunken young gentlemen, rushed into a rock, which miraculously closed over her for ever. The drunkards had no power over so devoted a servant of the Lord, but were only permitted, in grasping at her, as she vanished into the rock, to tear off a piece of her veil or hood, which appears to have been kept as a relic.
Here the "Rejected Gospels" may be said to end; but it is my intention briefly to notice the other pieces contained in Mr. Hone's book. The next in order are the epistles of fathers Clement, Barnabas, and Ignatius. These holy men were not remarkably brilliant letter-writers; indeed, much of what they have penned is chiefly distinguished by its intense egotism, overbearing assumption, and dreary monotonous prosiness. Father Clement was the least arrogant of the trio; he was a disciple of St. Peter, and afterwards bishop of Rome. Archbishop Wake observes, "Clemens Alexandrinus calls him an apostle; Jerome says he was an apostolical man; and Rufinus says that he was almost an apostle. Eusebius calls this the wonderful epistle of St. Clement, and says that it was publicly read in the assemblies of the primitive church." It is very certain that Clement was very much more of an apostle than of a philosopher, and that his credulity and love of the marvellous were considerably greater than his knowledge of natural history. In the twelfth chapter of his epistle to the Corinthians he undertakes, by analogy, to prove the resurrection of man from the grave and the existence of a new state of being after death, in which he fails even more lamentably than Bishop Butler does. So extraordinary and so amusingly romantic is the argument contained in this chapter in favour of immortality, that I doubt not that the reader will thank me for extracting it. "Let us," said this credulous old man, "consider that wonderful type of the resurrection which is seen in the eastern countries, that is to say, in Arabia. There is a certain bird called a phoenix: of this there is never but one at a time, and that lives five hundred years. And when the time of its dissolution draws near, that it must die, it makes itself a nest of frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into which, when its time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. But its flesh putrifying, breeds a certain worm, which being nourished with the juice of the dead bird, brings forth feathers; and when it is grown to a perfect state, it takes up the nest, in which the bones of its parent lie, and carries it from Arabia into Egypt, to a city called Heliopolis: and flying in open day in the sight of all men, lays it upon the altar of the sun, and so returns from whence it came. The priests then search into the records of the time, and find that it returned precisely at the end of five hundred years. And shall we then think it to be any very great and strange thing for the Lord of all, to raise up those that religiously serve him in the assurance of a good faith, when even by a bird he shows us the greatness of his power to fulfil his promise?" There is a childlike simplicity about poor Father Clement's belief in this odd tradition concerning a fabulous bird that is quite amusing. I hare said he was the least objectionable of these epistle writers. He does not pretend to inspiration, gives some very rational advice, though mingled with much solemn twaddle, and seems to have been a good sort of person, only extremely prosy.
Barnabas was a companion and fellow-preacher with Paul, and in his epistles is a great expounder of types. Types have been, and still are, a favourite subject with priests and clergymen, because when they come to a passage in the Bible, which plainly rendered, is a positive absurdity, or worse, they are sure to discover it is a divine type or symbol. Thus that silly story about Jonah living for three days and nights in the belly of a whale, being found, even by the faithful, somewhat hard of mental digestion, has been discovered to be a very beautiful type. The wicked disobedient Jonah was a type of the good and submissive Jesus, and the greedy whale a type of the grave, which swallows everything. Thus, as the naughty Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so the good Jesus was three days and nights in the tomb; that is, according to his own predictions he ought to have been, but he was not; for, according to the evangelists, he lay in the grave only six and-thirty hours. I suppose that must be considered near enough for a New Testament narrative, and, indeed, similies seldom run on all-fours.
Barnabas discovers that the scape-goat of the ancient Jews, that was sent forth into the wilderness with all the sins of Israel on its devoted head, was a type of Christ; and, that in the first institution of the mystic and unpleasant practice of circumcision, Abraham foretold Christ by name. He also tells us that the commands of Moses, concerning clean and unclean beasts, were all designed for a spiritual or typical signification. Thus, when Moses commanded the Jews to abstain from eating pork, Barnabas discovered that the acute law-giver meant that they should not join themselves "to such persons as are like unto swine, who whilst they live in pleasure forgot their God," &c. "Neither," says he, "shall thou eat the eagle, nor the hawk, nor the kite, nor the crow; that is, thou shalt not keep company with such kind of men, as know not by their labour and sweat to get themselves food; but injuriously ravish away the things of others, and watch how to lay snares for them; when at the same time they appear to live in perfect innocence." This explanation is cleverly wrong, Barnabas widely misunderstood Moses, whose views in these prohibitions were not moral, but sanitary.
A curious gospel, no longer extant, is also attributed to Barnabas. In this, I have read, that he states it was not Jesus who suffered on the cross at Calvary, but that God deceived the Jews in such a manner, that the avaricious old traitor Judas assumed to their eyes the form of Jesus, and was crucified in his stead: while the latter ascended, smiling and unscathed, to heaven. More than one sect of the early Christians taught that Jesus did not actually die on the cross himself, but that Cymon, the Cyrenum (who much resembled him) perished in his stead. It is strange that in the gospel of St. Matthew, the strict grammatical construction of the passage makes Cymon, and not Jesus, the victim. I look upon that, however, to be an error of the translators, who, though they were a very learned body of prelates, seem to have been by no means particular about the purity of their English. Thus, in what is called the Lord's Prayer, our Bible translation has two errors in grammar, "Our Father which art in heaven," "Thy will be done in earth." Some may affect to consider these as small errors, but they are errors which would not be permitted to escape uncensured in any composition of authority beside the Bible. In reading other writings men use their senses, but that mysterious piece of Hebrew patchwork seems to freeze up and fetter the intellect of some even of the wisest. So debasing is the effect of fear, that in an instant their acuteness and wisdom is laid aside, and they become feeble as infants, or foolish as grovelling idiots. Who can reflect without an emotion of pity on Sir Isaac Newton, in the dotage of extreme age, wasting the wreck of his noble intellect over that rhapsodical nonsense, called the Revelation of St. John. Such is the withering, corrupting influence of superstition; even wisdom turns to folly at its presence; before it intellect reels and staggers like a drunken man, while its votaries fall prostrate to its grim dry bones, as the bulrush and other tall idle weeds bend beneath the fury of the passing hurricane.
I Pass to the Epistles of Ignatius, otherwise called Theophorus. This worthy was a bishop of the early Christian Church, to which he eventually became a martyr; being, it is said, thrown to wild beasts to be devoured. Amidst much verbiage he gives some good advice, about the best of which is the following sentence: "Be not deceived with strange doctrines; nor with old fables which are unprofitable." But he desires his readers to close their ears when any one speaks contrary to Jesus Christ: a direction which the clergy, and their followers, have pretty generally followed.
The chief point, however, of the Epistles of Ignatius is his extravagant love of bishops- As he was one of that pious fraternity himself he never lost a chance of recommending an implicit obedience and veneration towards them; in this he was so indefatigable that, at length, it becomes quite amusing; and precepts to obey, respect, and, of course, to support the bishops, turn up in every chapter. For the instruction of my readers I will quote a few of these laudations of primitive episcopacy. "Wherefore it will become you to run together according to the will of your bishop." "The more any one sees his bishop silent, the more let him revere him." On this principle, a pump or a post would be entitled to reverence. It is for wise words that we respect a man, not for empty silence. "It is evident that we ought to look upon the bishop even as we would do upon the Lord himself." Arrogance could scarcely go further than this; such an expression, except from the lips or pen of a saint, would, by the religious world, be accounted blasphemy; but these writings of Ignatius are still read and admired by many of our clergy, particularly, we should suppose, by those who may have an eye to a mitre. "As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father being united to him, neither by himself, nor yet by his apostles, so neither do ye anything without your bishop and presbyters;" "Be ye subject to your bishop, and to one another, as Jesus Christ to the Father." "Let us reverence the deacons as Jesus Christ and the bishop as the Father; and the presbytery as the Sanhedrim of God, and college of the Apostles." After reading these impudent pretensions of an early Christian saint and bishop, who will presume to assert that Romanism is inconsistent with primitive Christianity. One more quotation from Father Ignatius, and then I will turn from his arrogant assumptions: "Hearken unto the bishop that God also may hearken unto you. My soul be security for them that submit to their bishop."
With such sentiments of idolatry respecting bishops, Ignatius was a fitting instrument for the complete mental subjugation of his followers. So far from popery being a deviation from primitive Christianity, it is, if this man's writings are to be regarded as expressing the opinions of the early Christian ministry, to be considered as the natural result and fulfilment of it. Ignatius would have every preacher considered as infallible, every bishop invested with the power of a pope. . The right of private and individual judgment was a thing which the apostles and fathers of the Church never admitted. The demand for that right, born from the awakening intelligence of Europe, was cradled in the storm of that great mental revolution called the Reformation; and in their excitement, Protestants knew not, or forgot, the nature of the gift they asked. The right of private judgment! Why there is nothing the Protestants of this day shrink from, with such trembling aversion; they now know to what it is leading, to what it must inevitably lead. Private judgment is the parent of free thought and unbelief, and where the father enters, the children are never far behind. The right of private judgment, when once thoroughly understood and acted upon, will, in a spiritual and mental sense, revolutionise Europe; it will snatch the mitre from the bishop, the surplice from the priest, the grim veil of mysticism from the Bible, dispel delusion from the eyes of the people, convert our cathedrals into colleges, and our churches into lecture-halls. The Reformation was the beginning of the end; and when the next theological convulsion comes, priestly domination, the doctrines of mental submission and passive obedience, the forced and unnatural connexion of the State with the Church, together with the wealth and influence of the latter, will sink, deeply and irrevocably, in the stormy sea of the right of private judgment!
If the Christian Church is to maintain its influence over the intellect of the age, it must get rid of this dangerous doctrine about private judgment; it must pursue the same policy as Ignatius, and recommend its votaries to be subject to their bishop, even as they are subject to their God. The modern priesthood, both Roman and Protestant, mean this, and try their best to accomplish it, but they cover their purpose by a decent craft. Ignatius, on the contrary, spoke it out plainly at once.
The apocryphal epistles are concluded with a brief one by Polycarp to the Philippians, in which he gives some moral advice, and denounces those who deny the resurrection and final judgment of mankind as the first-born of Satan. Polycarp adds, with that base servility which has ever, with some few exceptions, been the characteristic of the Church when she was not strong enough to tyrannise, "Pray also for kings, and all that are in authority." No matter, you see, for the character of those in authority, let them be tyrants or idiots, stained with the blood of those whom they should protect, or plunged chin deep into the mire of the vilest sensuality; pray for them because they are wealthy and powerful. Most of the Christian fathers and apostles were actuated by the same unreasoning, base, and parasitical spirit; for even the turbulent St. Paul recommended passive obedience to the Roman monster Nero; because the powers that be are ordained of God. I better like the spirit displayed by a quaint Scotch minister of modern times. When the young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, lauded in Scotland, in the memorable year 1745, to demand his ancestral royalty, the clergy were commanded by his followers to pray for the Stuart as their prince. The worthy minister I alluded to continued to pray for George the Second, but to his customary application he added this address to the Deity, "and as for the young man who has come among us, seeking for an earthly crown, we beseech thee take him to thyself, and give him a crown of glory." That was as sensible a prayer, and as patriotic a one also, as I remember ever to have read, or listened to. It was worth volumes of the slave-creating outpourings of Polycarp or St. Paul.
The last three books of the Apocryphal Testament are attributed to one Hermas, brother to Pius, one of the early Roman bishops. The first is called the Visions of Hermas, the second his Commands, and the third his Similitude. Hermas is a terribly prolix and diffuse writer, but he is not tedious; for the monstrous extravagance of the lies he tells renders them rather amusing. His visions bear some resemblance to the Revelations of St. John, but are more colloquial and less pompous. The commands are certain instructions given to him by a very chatty, but positive and conceited old man, with a reverend look, who appears to him in the habit of a shepherd, and turns out to be an angel in disguise; and the similitudes are moral reflections, arising out of comparisons of the affairs of men with the aspects of nature. Thus, he says, that as the vine is supported by the elm, so is the rich man helped by the prayers of the poor; as the green trees, during winter, cannot be distinguished from the dry, so neither can the righteous from the wicked in this present world; and that as in the summer the living trees are distinguished from the dry, by their fruits and green leaves, so in the world to come the righteous shall be distinguished from the unrighteous by their happiness.
These books of Hermas are spoken of as most useful and instructive, if not actually inspired, by many learned writers of the ancient Church; but I will bring Hermas himself forward as a witness to his own character, and then you can decide whether such an ignorant, lying rascal, ought to have been trusted in anything. This is a sweeping censure, but I have the man's own words as a justification of it. In the third chapter of the Commands, the angel, in the costume of a shepherd, cautions him strongly against lying, because, he says, those who lie "deny the Lord, and become the robbers of the Lord." "When I heard this," writes Hermas, "I wept bitterly; and when he saw me weeping, he said unto me, why weepest thou? And I said, because, sir, I doubt whether I can be saved. He asked me wherefore? I replied, because, sir, I never spake a true word in my life; but always lived in dissimulation, and affirmed a lie for truth to all men; and no man contradicted me, but all gave credit to my words; How then can I live, seeing I have done in this manner?" Here is a pretty apostolical writer, a moral teacher, and a father of the Christian Church. He openly confesses that though his pious pretensions have caused people to trust him, yet that he has always been an habitual liar; that, indeed, he never spoke the truth in his life.
So much for the moral character of Hermas; now for his ability as a teacher of the Christian societies. In the next chapter to the one I have just referred to, he again addresses the angel, and says, "Seeing the Lord hath thought me worthy that thou shouldst dwell with me continually, speak a few words unto me, because I understand nothing, and my heart is hardened through my former conversation; and open my understanding, because I am very dull, and understand nothing at all!" Thus, this man who sets up for an inspired writer, who relates his interviews with angels, who assumed the character of a teacher of the Christian world, and whose books ran a risk of being included in the collections of miscellaneous writings, known as the Bible, and proclaimed as the direct emanations of Deity, was, on his own confession, so great a liar, that he never spoke the truth; and so great a fool that he understood nothing! Why, this is even more openly impudent than the fraud of palming upon us the amatory after-dinner songs of Solomon! A liar and a fool, self-confessed and self-proclaimed! Verily, it must be admitted, that, in spite of his own statement to the contrary, Hermas did speak the truth once or twice.
Hermas made some use of his visions. He seems to have had a rather troublesome and talkative wife, and he endeavoured to correct her by pretending that he had seen a vision of a venerable old lady, in a bright garment, who gave him a book in which was contained an injunction for his wife, "to refrain her tongue with which she calumniates," and an intimation, that if she expected to be saved, that was the way to accomplish it. Thus, while Hermas was obtaining the character of an inspired writer, he turned his revelations to domestic account, and kept his scolding wife in order with them. If the poor woman was one of the faithful he could hang a threat of damnation over her whenever she was unpleasantly eloquent. Hermas has not been singular in this matter: the Christian ministry, even to this hour, have been remarkably successful in crushing the spirit and mental independence of women.
As a passing selection from the apocryphal Testament, I will relate one of the visions of Hermas, chiefly in his own words. He says he was walking in the fields all alone, when it came into his mind to entreat the Lord "that he would confirm the revelations which he had showed unto me by bis holy Church." His prayer was immediately answered, for he says: "And behold something like a voice answered me; doubt not Hermas." There is an airy indefiniteness about this that is rather puzzling; something like a voice spoke to him; not exactly a voice, or a sound, or a thing, but, I suppose, like any, or all of them; a kind of possible improbability! Hermas reminds me of what Falstaff said of Mrs. Quickley, he is neither fish nor flesh, and no one knows where to have him! He is about as exact and definite as a certain clownish country witness who, on being urged, in a court of justice, to describe the size of a stone that was thrown at a certain person, replied, "it was a goodish sized stone; about as big as a lump of chalk."
While Hermas walks in the field he sees a cloud of dust which, with a remarkable acuteness, he supposed to be caused by an approaching drove of cattle. However, as the dust rises higher and higher, he begins to suspect something extraordinary in it; "and," says he, "the sun shone a little; and, behold, I saw a great beast, as it were a whale, and fiery locusts came out of his mouth. The height of the beast was about a hundred feet, and he had a head like a large earthern vessel."
Here, again, Hermas leaves a good deal to the fancy of the reader. A head like an earthern vessel would not be a very expressive or terrible looking one; it might resemble a brown waterjug, a pan, or a pickle jar, but the author takes care that you shall not entrap him with his own definitions. However, whether the head resembled a pan, or a pickle-jar, it was not the sort of head to be laughed at. This is abundantly evident, for Hermas, in continuation suys, "the beast came on in such a manner as if it could at once have devoured a city. I came near unto it, and the beast extended its whole bulk upon the ground, and put forth nothing but its tongue, nor once moved itself till I had quite passed by it. Now the beast had upon its head four colours; first black, then a red and bloody colour, then a golden, and then a white. After that I had passed by it, and was gone forward about thirty feet, behold there met me a certain virgin, well adorned, as she had been just come out of her bride-chamber; all in white, having on white shoes, and a veil down her face, and covered with shining hair." I presume Hermas means that the lady's head was covered with hair, or that she had a great profusion of it; but with his usual laxity of expression, the construction of the sentence conveys the idea that the bride was covered all over with hair, in which case she would have been more remarkable than attractive.
The lady turns out to be the Church, and she tells Hermas that the name of the beast is Hegrin, that it was the figure of the trials that were to come, and that he had escaped it on account of his great faith. She adds that the black colour on the head of the beast was a type of the world, the red colour denoted a coming persecution, the golden colour was the faithful, who escaped, and the white the world, as it will be when the elect of God possess it. All this might be regarded as merely idle, but harmless ingenuity, and wasted time, if it did not end with a threatening demand upon our faith. "Woe to the doubtful," exclaims the virgin Church, "to those who shall hear these words, and shall despise them: it had been better for them that they had not been born." This is the reiterated cry of every priestly impostor, from the time of Moses to that of Joseph Smith.
A few words in conclusion. If I have rather described these apocryphal gospels and epistles than entered into any disquisition upon them, it has arisen partly from the nature of the subject, and partly because I do not think it deserves a more profound or serious consideration. Still I imagine I have done acceptable service in calling attention to the apocryphal Testament, and, perhaps, by so doing, have helped to shake that blindly idolatrous faith which many persons place in what is called revelation. It is well that the clergy should know that the books of doubtful divinity are not forgotten and, that, despite their desire to the contrary, we will not permit them to be forgotten. I demand of the Church a Complete Bible, not a selection of such theological writings as their representatives, in their wisdom or caprice, think fit to promulgate. I do not recognize the authority of the Council of Nice, or of that of any other council, to dictate to me what I must believe to be inspired, and what I must reject. An open policy demands that the Church should present its votaries with the apocryphal Testament, and say, "This collection of writings was regarded as sacred by the early Christians; we, for such and such reasons, do not so esteem it now; but if you have any desire to read it, do so, and judge for yourselves." This would be a fair and manly proceeding; but the Church avoids it, because she wishes the way the Bible was put together to be forgotten. She would, if she dared, declare that it was handed direct from Heaven, like the clone tablets which are said to have been given by God to Moses. The Church desires that the Bible should be looked upon as an entire, complete, and sacred thing; and guarded around by a divinity which should protect it from criticism. Constant and reiterated discussion upon it will shake that opinion. Some of my acquaintance have expressed to me their regret at the activity of Bible Societies. It gives me satisfaction; let the Bible be distributed in every nook and corner of England, in every cottage and hovel; but let it be Read. The more it is read by earnest minds the less it will be respected or believed. Reading he Bible confirmed me in rejecting it as a work of inspiration; and a fearless, critical study of it will lead thousands of others into the sweet and simple paths of reason and free-thought. Yes, let the Bible go abroad abundantly that pure good minds may the sooner discard its fables and licentiousness. I wish, also, that its poor little neglected brother, the Apocryphal Testament, whom the clergy treat as if it did not belong to the family, should, as far as practicable, go along with it. Therefore, I say, success to these Rejected Gospels, and may they meet with a perusal from the people of this country which their own merits cannot command, and do not deserve!
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