Credibility of the Apostolic History


THE dogmatic denial of the supernatural is the main-spring of attack upon the apostolic history as given in the New Testament. Renan speaks for the whole circle of kindred souls when he says, "It is an absolute rule of criticism to deny a place in history to narratives of miraculous circumstances." [The Apostles, Intro.] From their stand-point, miracle is only another name for delusion or falsehood; all records of miracles belong to the region of myths, legends, or intentional fabrications.

The chief objection to the absolute rule of Renan is the omission of a very important word. His language should be: "It is an absolute rule of my criticism," etc. This wording brings out properly the personal assumption which is embodied in his, or any equivalent, statement. His rule, as stated by himself, is simply a private opinion arbitrarily set forth under the guise of an universal maxim.

Renan, however, denies that his rule is the product of arbitrary assumption. It has, he maintains, the most palpable basis possible. It is no uncertain item of a metaphysical system; "it is simply the dictation of observation." Here, again, we must accuse the learned author of a grave omission. The qualifying pronoun is no less required in this than in the previous statement. His argument, reduced to its essential contents, amounts to this: I have never seen a miracle; I have never had communication with a trustworthy person who has seen a miracle: therefore, from the dawn of time until now no miracle has ever occurred. How much broader the conclusion than the premises! Very likely M. Renan never saw a miracle; but he is not entitled to make his experience the absolute standard of the experience of all men in all ages: to do this is wholesale assumption and begging of the question.

But give us the proof, says Renan; establish the reality of a single miracle: otherwise, we shall be entitled to reject every account of miraculous events which antiquity has handed down to us. This challenge is evidently no call to bring up all the arguments which can be adduced in favor of any particular miracle of Christ or of his apostles. The strain of our dogmatist implies that nothing but a miracle in the present, or the near neighborhood of the present, could satisfy. It is absolutely necessary that he himself, or tile learned critics in whom he has implicit confidence, should be on hand with their tests. It would not do to depend upon the testimony of ignorant and credulous people. Even the learned critics themselves must be well prepared, for if they were taken by surprise they would be certain to suspect artifice. Nothing remains, then, but to have the miracle wrought according to pre-arrangement. A pre-arranged miracle! The Almighty compelled to take part; in a show gotten up by human caprice and presumption! Tile barricade of the critic's absolute rule," it is to be feared, will have to be left standing. The sayings and the doings of Christ, if they have been correctly reported by the evangelists, surely discourage the expectation that miracles will be wrought in answer to the challenge of unbelief. [Matt. xii. 38-42, xvi. 1-4; Mark viii. 11, 12; Luke xi. 29-32; Acts i. 7.] Clear, rational considerations stand equally in the way of such an expectation. A miracle having once been wrought under the supposed circumstances, its proof would rest upon the evidence of testimony no less than that of any miracle already on record. The same unbelief which called for the first would call for a second miracle, and in default of a satisfactory response to its arbitrary demand would cast suspicion upon the accounts of the previous miracle, finding possibly in the very fact of pre-arrangement an occasion for accusing the witnesses of having sold their verdict. On the other hand, if every demand were answered with a miracle, the educative power of law would be nullified, and Christianity would descend from the high office of a spiritual teacher to the poor function of ministering to an inordinate greed for supernatural manifestations. Not the demand of a captious unbelief but the faith of a devoted co-laborer with God, is the appropriate channel for the descent of supernatural virtue. The miracle is incidental to a work of beneficent intent and high importance.

No doubt one may occupy a superstitious attitude toward the supernatural, and affirm miraculous intervention where there is no warrant for the affirmation; but, on the other hand, it is quite possible to occupy a superstitious attitude toward nature, to lose sight of the might and independence of spirit in a nerveless awe before the strength and uniformities of material forces. The latter superstition may be thought to be more respectable than the former; still it is a superstition, and to entertain it is no evidence of a superior and well-balanced mind.

Speculative objections to miracles are without convincing force, as has indeed been allowed by some of the more discerning opponents themselves of the supernatural. So long as God is not relegated to the hapless and nondescript condition of a being who is destitute of freedom and intelligence, there is a clear possibility of His intervention in the course of things; yea, one might say a clear probability, since the extraordinary is intrinsically suited to reach certain results which the ordinary mode of working cannot compass.

The reality of the New-Testament miracles, then, is a subject which may claim an open field in the sphere of historical and rational evidences. Like all facts of history, it does not of course admit of strict demonstration. Yet it is supported by considerations which come with peculiar cogency to a candid mind. These early miracles had an adequate occasion in the greatest fact of religious history, -- the introduction of Christianity. They were wrought without any striving after show or ostentation. They appear in almost every instance to have been prompted by a holy benevolence. They are ascribed to agents who were instrumental in producing the grandest moral and spiritual revolution the world has ever known. They are recorded in narratives which bear as prominent marks of honest intention as any narratives whatever in the whole range of history. These narratives are broadly contrasted in spirit and contents with the great mass of apocryphal, mythological, or legendary writings. There is in them no sign of a preference for the magical over the moral. The miracle is made accessory to ethical and spiritual aims. It appears as incidental to an era of grand uplift, and is woven into the record of this era. So far from being a mere attachment to revelation, or means of its confirmation, it is a part of the organism of revelation, an integral factor in the great historic process by which God has not merely intimated, but powerfully emphasized and richly illustrated, His gracious purpose.

The expulsion of the supernatural from the record places criticism under bonds to reconstruct the apostolic history. In at least one instance, within the century, this demand has been met with great earnestness. The reconstruction effort of the Tübingen school, especially as represented by Ferdinand Christian Baur, whatever it may be charged with, cannot be charged with lack of industry and painstaking. This school, it is true, did not start out with any such open and unqualified edict against miracles as that contained in the dictum of M. Renan. But its attitude toward them has been in fact scarcely more tolerant, and in its scheme the problem of the origin and early progress of Christianity becomes simply the question how the given conditions naturally evolved the given result. [The Tübingen scheme is given in substantially the same outline by Baur in his Kirchengeschichte, vol. i. 1863, and also in his Paulus; by Schwegler in his Nachapostolische Zeitalter; by Zeller in his Contents and Origin of the Acts of the Apostles, trans. by Joseph Dare; and by the author of Supernatural Religion.]

The theory of Baur in its full length and breadth has ceased to command much patronage among scholars. Various representatives of his school have modified it in one point or another. It my be, however, appropriately reviewed in this connection, as a convenient means of testing the trustworthiness of the apostolic record.

Baur, in his reconstruction of the apostolic history, assumes that primitive Christianity differed widely from the Christianity which appeared after the middle of the second century, and that a large portion of the New Testament is more nearly expressive of the latter than of the former. The transition from one type to the other was by a development analogous to the evolution of the idea, according to the Hegelian system. As one notion involves its contrary, and the movement between these issues in a third in which the two first find their higher unity and reconciliation, so was it with the different types of Christianity. What the first disciples drew from Christ's teaching was little else than a spiritualized Judaism. Peter and his co-apostles taught nothing else. They remained fixed within the bounds of Judaism. Their conception of Christ was the Ebionite conception of a human Messiah. From first to last this was the nature of Petrinism. Paul was the first really to transcend Jewish limits. He had a generalizing talent, aspired to a philosophy of religion, and gave to Christianity its cast of universality. But he won no favor from the other apostles. During the whole life of the leading apostles, Paulinism remained in sharp and bitter conflict with Petrinism. How far the breach was from being healed before the death of Paul, is evident from the Apocalypse. Unsoftened by the memory of his martyrdom, the author of this Judaic production, who very likely was none other than the Apostle John, leaves no place to Paul in the apostolic college, and praises the Epheslan church for having rejected him as a deceiver and pretender. [Kirchengeschichte, p. 81.] But ere long the antagonism began to be modified. Writings appeared which looked toward a harmonizing of the contending parties. The first to present the olive-branch was the Epistle to the Hebrews. This proceeds from the Judaic stand-point. At the same time it approaches Paulinism, and sets forth a reconciling principle. It makes Judaism simply a preparatory dispensation, and brings it into line with Christianity, as exemplifying imperfectly that idea of priesthood which finds its perfect expression in the latter. Another writing which proceeded from the Judaic basis was the Epistle which was sent forth under the name of James. This has, to be sure, a tinge of hostility to the Pauline doctrine of justification. At the same time it is not thoroughly anti-Pauline, and aims to set forth a platform of agreement between the contending parties. [Some of the later representatives of the school of Baur differ with him on this point. Hilgenfeld makes the Epistle of James bitterly anti-Pauline. (Einleitung, 1875.)] From the side of Paulinism the effort at reconciliation embodied itself in a number of writings, such as the pseudo-Pauline epistles to the Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, Timothy, and Titus. The so-called First Epistle of Peter also reveals unmistakably a Pauline stand-point. The most elaborate product of the union effort in the school of Paul is presented us in the Acts of the Apostles. The author of this book goes so far in his peacemaking zeal as thoroughly to falsify history, devising an extended and artificial parallelism between the lives of the two rival apostles, exhibiting Peter in a Pauline garb, and making Paul as Petrine as possible. Finally the work of mediation reaches its consummation in the Fourth Gospel, which was composed after the middle of the second century. This resolves all contradictions. "It rises into the lofty regions of transcendental philosophy, leaving far below all past differences. To the writer of that Gospel, Jews and Gentiles come into one and the same category; they both belong to the kingdom of darkness, which is perpetually at war with the kingdom of light." [So Pressensé summarizes the statement of Baur on the Fourth Gospel.]

The unhistorical nature of Baur's theory is evinced by a variety of considerations. It is indicated by the concensus of thought and feeling in the latter part of the second century. If the antagonism between Paul and the other apostles was the most conspicuous fact in the annals of early Christianity, how happened it that the knowledge of it had so soon and so thoroughly faded away throughout the length and breadth of catholic Christendom? How happened it that Irenaeus and the contemporary Fathers had no thought of such an antagonism as having ever existed? Again, Baur's theory runs into the incredible in the insinuations which it makes against the character of the apostles. While there is no need to idealize these men, it is rational to conclude, from the impress which they made, that they were men of great moral earnestness and spiritual elevation. Surely we may credit men of such grand achievement with a fair degree of honesty and magnanimity. Now, the words of Paul show that the apostles, even the chief of them, acknowledged him to his face, and pledged their friendship. What, then, is to be thought of a speculation which asks us to conclude, that, in gross violation of this friendly profession, they were capable of indulging covert and malicious thrusts at the character and work of Paul? Again, the unhistorical nature of Baur's theory is indicated by the desperate dealing with the apostolic writings to which he is driven. In maintaining his position, he is constrained to make a wholesale onslaught against the New Testament, and to impeach the genuineness of books concerning which the early Church entertained no doubt, and against which a valid objection has never been urged. To say nothing about the Gospels, he is obliged to reject all the general Epistles and all but four of Paul's Epistles. It also argues against his theory, that he finds it expedient to make so much of writings like the pseudo-Clementine, --writings representing, at most, an obscure heretical sect, and no more entitled to serve as an index of primitive Christianity, than Mormonism is to stand as an exponent of original Protestantism.

The four Epistles of Paul whose genuineness is conceded by Baur are Romans, First and Second Corinthians, and Galatians. To limit the evidence in the case to these four writings is in itself an exceedingly arbitrary procedure. But Baur's arbitrariness goes a step farther. He takes apologetic passages in Paul's writings, as giving the absolute type of what Paul was in general. Now, unless the apostle is to be thrown entirely out of the category of ordinary humanity, this is an unwarranted procedure. No one, for example, would look for the complete attitude of Luther toward good works in passages which he penned in the full blaze of his indignation against the Pharisaic and commercial view of justification. Paul, indeed, wrote with a much steadier hand than Luther; still it is intrinsically probable, that, in cases where no definite issue was raised, and no principle was openly at stake, he appeared rather more tolerant toward Jewish peculiarities than he did in an express effort to combat the delusion that the yoke of Jewish ceremonialism must be bound to the necks of all converts to Christianity. It is plainly a one-sided polemic, which freely charges the other apostles with inconsistencies, but allows to Paul no flexibility in addressing himself to differing circumstances, and well-nigh denies him the prerogative to indulge any change of moods.

Let us now take up Baur's excerpt from the New Testament, the four Epistles which he acknowledges, and see what ground they afford for his fundamental thesis respecting the radical antagonism between Petrinism and Paulinism. We have in the first place the fact that a party is mentioned which was opposed to Paul, and inclined to uphold the superior claims of Peter (1 Cor. i. 12; iii. 22). It is possible that this was a Judaizing party. Paul, indeed, does not say that it was such; but he does mention Peter as the leading representative of the apostleship of the circumcision, while to him was committed the gospel of the uncircumcision (Gal. ii. 7-8), and it is more than likely, in view of this acknowledged contrast of office, that the party which favored Peter was of a Judaizing cast. But is there ally evidence that this party spirit extended to the apostles, that they shared in it, or that it was based upon any essential antagonism between them? The language of Paul gives not the slightest warrant for any such inference. His communication to the Corinthians indicates no jealousy toward Peter. On the contrary, he rebukes even more explicitly the childishness of appealing to Paul (1 Cor. i. 13-16), than that of appealing to Peter. He intimates the fullest confidence that Peter, equally with himself, is included in the unity of Christ (1 Cor. i. 12-13; iii. 21-23). He was evidently himself raised above the low plane of this partisanship, and he gives no indication but that the names of the other leaders were used entirely without their consent. [What Paul says in Rom. xv. 25-28 is something more than a testimony to his own kindly feeling. If he were conscious of a combination against him, patronized by leading apostles, how could he write in such a strain respecting those dwelling in the very citadel of Petrinism?] There is nothing in the way of the belief that Apollos and Peter were entirely free from responsibility for the partisan adherence of those who made their boast in them. Tt would be, moreover, nothing strange if there was no ground for the three parties in the three men other than the differences which always exist between men of marked individuality. They may all have taught substantially the same system of doctrine, being, distinguished only as respects manner, spirit, and relative emphasis upon different classes of truths. History is full of illustrations of how slight are the occasions which may give rise to parties. Among men of limited compass and different prejudices, some of Gentile and others of Jewish antecedents, the mere fact that Paul was the apostle of the uncircumcision and Peter of the circumcision could easily serve as an occasion of a Pauline and a Petrine party. That the extreme wings of these parties would misrepresent the two apostles, and magnify beyond measure the differences between them, would follow almost as a matter of course. Many historical parallels teach us that the principals are not to be judged by the extremists of parties. To judge Peter by a rigid and narrow-minded Ebionism, and Paul by the wild speculations of Gnosticism, is simply absurd. Streams may be very near together, or even one, at their source, which are far distant from each other at their mouths. In fine, the rise of Petrine and Pauline parties is no proof of any radical differences between Peter and Paul. That they represented somewhat diverse types of thought, is of course to be conceded. But diversity is not contradiction. Diversities supplementing each other are a large element in the charm and completeness of the New Testament.

In the second place, we have an account in the Epistle to the Galatians of a disagreement between Paul and Peter. In the eyes of the Tübingen school this is of vast importance. But the significance of a disagreement depends entirely upon its nature. Because two bishops differ on a point of administration, it is not to be concluded that they represent antagonistic systems of theology or polity. No more does it follow, because Paul and Peter differed on the propriety of eating, or refraining from eating, with the Gentiles of Antioch, under a special set of circumstances, that there was any radical antagonism between them as respects principles. On the contrary, the context shows that the question was not so much about the acknowledgment of a principle, as about fidelity to a principle acknowledged in common by both Paul and Peter. Paul says of Peter, "Before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles; but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision (Gal. ii. 12). This language plainly indicates, that, in the opinion of Paul, the real views of Peter were indentical with his own; that he not only considered the door of the Church open to the Gentiles, but that within the Church the Gentiles were to stand on an equality with the Jews. Peter was right in theory. But those who came from James had never been accustomed to association with the Gentiles; Peter was afraid that their Jewish prejudices would be shocked overmuch by his free intercourse with the Gentiles, and so withdrew from their table. This seemed to Paul to be pushing accommodation to the sacrifice of principle, and drew forth his rebuke. That Paul introduces this scene is no indication of a permanent rupture between him and Peter. He introduces it as one factor in the proof that in communication with the chief apostles he had maintained his equality with them, had asserted his apostleship, and asserted it consistently with his belief in the freedom of the Gentiles from the law of Moses. There is nothing here, or elsewhere, to indicate that any thing more than this single disagreement on a point of conduct ever came between him and Peter. He gives no hint that he is at war with the apostle of the circumcision. On the contrary, he acknowledges his apostleship, the effectiveness of his apostleship, and is careful to specify that he, as well as James and John, gave to himself the right hand of fellowship (Gal. ii. 7-10). [The suggestion that Paul, in his mention of false apostles (2 Cor. xi. 13), refers to Peter and others of the Twelve is too absurd for even the most captious critic, being in flagrant contradiction of what Paul himself says in his Epistles. There were then in the Church those who might be characterized as false apostles. Paul is allowed to speak of such without being suspected of insinuations against the Twelve. Why not grant the same privilege to the latter? Surely criticism is making an unseemly exhibition of its bias, and running into gratuitous libel, when it assumes that John in the Apocalypse, in the face of his former commendation of Paul, proceeds to number him with false apostles.]

The single passage in Galatians ought to be regarded as refuting the charge of Baur, that the Acts of the Apostles give a false account of Peter, and represent him as being much more free and generous toward the Gentiles than he really was. There is nothing in the Acts which goes beyond the implications of Paul's statement that Peter, so far as his private convictions were concerned, was free to eat with the Gentiles. In like manner, a candid comparison of the Acts with the Epistles will vindicate the truthfulness of the former with respect to Paul. Baur, indeed, affirms that the Epistles forbid the conclusion that Paul could have made so great concessions to Jewish prejudices as appears in the narrative of the Acts. But this springs from an obstinate bent, characteristic of the whole Tübingen exposition, to construct a strait-jacket for Paul, to bind him to act always according to the letter of his most spirited protests against Jewish ceremonialism. It ignores the glimpses of an irenic spirit which are given in the Epistles. We have here unmistakable intimations that Paul was ready to indulge no small measure of accommodation: "Unto the Jews," he says, "I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law " (1 Cor. ix. 20). It was in pursuance of this maxim that he caused Timothy, who had a Jewish mother, to be circumcised. Circumcision insisted upon as a necessity, he was ready to oppose with his utmost vigor, as the Epistle to the Galatians shows; but circumcision regarded as mere matter of expediency, and where the subject was of Jewish lineage, he had no scruple about practising himself. The author of the Acts really makes Paul no more Jewish than do his own Epistles. Moreover, that he did not design a perversion of the truth in order to commend the apostleship of Paul to his adversaries is indicated by the fact that he records the election of Matthias to the single vacancy in the apostolic college, a record that evidently might be just so much capital in the hands of the opponents of the apostolic claims of Paul. [This fact should be regarded as a weighty comment on the conclusion of Baur, that the mention of only twelve thrones in the Apocalypse was meant to rule out Paul from the apostolic dignity. It should also be credited with some weight against the charge that the author of the Acts purposely mutilated the history by omitting every thing counter to a mediatorial design. Baur is especially exercised over the omission of an affair of such tremendous import as Paul's reproof of Peter at Antioch, an omission whose wilful intent, as he claims, is made quite apparent by the mention of such a subordinate matter as the dispute between Paul and Barnabas. But it is to be presumed that the affair at Antioch, if viewed at all by the author of the Acts, was not viewed through the magnifying glasses of Tübingen. The proof is wanting that it was any thing more than a passing episode. Indeed, the large-heartedness of both of the apostles is not a bad guaranty that they speedily came to a good understanding. In any event, the matter had no direct bearing upon Paul's journeys. How, then, should the historian, in a rapid sketch of these journeys, be under strict obligation to turn aside to notice such an episode? The dispute with Barnabas, on the other hand, had a most palpable connection with the great missionary tour upon which Paul was just entering.]

One or two historical difficulties lie upon the surface of the narrative in the Acts. The date assigned to the insurrectionist Theudas is earlier, by forty years or more, than that of the insurrectionist of the same name who is described by Josephus. [Antiq., xx. 5. 1.] But this is far from being proof positive of an error on the part of the author of the Acts. The mistake, if there was a mistake, may have been with Josephus. Very likely neither writer was at fault. It would be nothing strange if more than one Theudas was a leader in a seditious uprising. Names were often repeated in those times. The annals of Jewish rebellion present in a brief period no less than four with the name of Simon, and three with the name of Judas, Josephus describes Judæa as being the theatre of a great number of tumults and rebellions in the disturbed era which followed the deathof Herod the Great. [Antiq., xvii. 10.] Here surely was room enough for the Theudas of the Acts. Possibly, as has been suggested, Theudas was another name for the Judas or the Simon who is mentioned by Josephus among the authors of sedition in this era. A second difficulty is the mention in the Acts of a journey to Jerusalem, by Paul, between his first visit there as a convert to Christianity and that which fell at the time of the council (xi. 30; xii. 25); whereas Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians omits all mention of such a visit. But Paul's omission may be explained from the fact that it was only a hasty journey, for the sake of carrying funds to the needy church at Jerusalem, and resulted in no intercourse of any moment with the other apostles. Paul was speaking in Galatians of the instances in which he had communicated with the apostles, and might very naturally pass by a journey which resulted in no such communication. In any case, the occasion which the Acts assign to the journey, namely, the famine-stricken state of the brethren in Judæa, --is known from secular sources [Josephus, Antiq., xx. 2. 5, 5. 2.] a to have been a fact about the time that the journey must have occurred. There is, therefore, neither in this nor in the preceding instance, any adequate ground for impeaching the truthfulness of the record. [Other difficulties are of course found by those who are bent upon Bmding them. A brief narrative cannot present every side of a transection. Accordingly, a biassed criticism, catching a glimpse of another side than the one specially elucidated, has an opportunity to proclaim a contradiction. For example, Baur thinks it a serious discrepancy that the Book of Acts refers to an assembly in Jerusalem convened for discussing the relation of the Gentiles to the law of Moses, whereas Paul in Galatians speaks only conferring with the chief apostles. But the Acts do not deny the conference with the chief apostles, nor does Paul deny the assembly. That Paul should mention the more personal conference, suited his argument. What he wished to indicate to the Galatians was the independent basis of his apostleship and his full equality with the older apostles. Now, in accomplishing this, it surely would have been very little to the purpose to mention the assembly and the decree which was sent forth in its name. How he bore himself toward the chief apostles, and what acknowledgement he commanded from them, were by far the most pertinent items.]

But let the worst possible construction of these two cases be allowed, and they will still make an exceedingly small substraction from the accuracy of the Acts of the Apostles. Its manifold and marked agreements with all other available sources, sacred or secular, proclaim it one of the most careful and trustmorthy historical treatises ever composed. Let one but consider how broad was the territory covered; how varied, as respects their customs and local institutions, were the communities that are touched upon; how shifting was the political horizon of Judæa, --and the unbiased impression cannot be other than one of admiration at the harmony of the details in the entire narrative with their geographical and historical environment. ["It would have been rightly considered a very trivial blot on St. Luke's accuracy if he had fallen into some slight confusion about the Ethnarch under Aretas, the Asiaarchs of Ephesus, the Prætors of Philippi, the Politarchs of Thessalonica, the Prctos of Malta, or the question whether Proprætor or Proconsul was, in the numerous changes of those days, the erect official title of the Roman governor of Cyprus or Corinth. On several of these points he bas been triumphantly charged with ignorance and error; and on all these points his minute exactitude has been completely vindicated or rendered extremely probable. In every historical allusion -- as, for instance, the characters of Gallio, Felix, Festus, Agrippa II., Ananias, the famine in the days of Claudius, the decree to expel Jews from Rome, the death of Agrippa I., the rule of Aretas at Damascus, the Italian band, etc. --he has been shown to be perfectly faithful to facts." (F. W. Farrar, Life and Work of St. Paul, vol. i., chap. 6.) See Paley's Horæ Paulinæ; Life of St. Paul, by Conybeare and Howson; Harman's Introduction to the Scriptures; Ebrard's Kritik der Evangelische Geschichte; Lechler's Apostolische und Nachapostolische Zeitalter.]