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I Here is nothing which more peculiarly distinguishes Christianity from the ordinary schemes of human artifice, than the remarkable number of persons, differing in professions, capacities, and interests, who jointly bore witness, to its early revelations, and individually laid claim to divine inspiration. So intimate is their connexion and so reciprocal their support, that to confirm or to reject the truth of one, leads to the confirmation or rejection of all. Thus they form as it were dependent parts of a regular system, and every attempt to detach them serves only to display the distinct force of their respective proofs, and the irresistible weight of their aggregate evidence. The plans of deceit, on the contrary, feeble in contrivance and limited in execution, rely, in the first stage of their progress, on solitary testimony. Caution, jealousy, selfishness, distrust, all that multiplies the difficulties of communication and the probabilities of treachery, prevent the union and co-operation of many impostors.—The more widely the circle of conspiracy expands, the weaker it becomes, ■' till,
by broad spreading, it disperse to nought.'—The infinite diversities of character, the perpetual contrarieties of passion, and the varied combinations of circumstance elude the penetration and confound the projects of those, who are most experienced in observing the operations of the human mind, and in tracing the relations of cause and effect. Mahomet himself, who possessed consummate subtlety to allure, and powerful captivations to retain participators in his secrets, admitted at most but one or two adherents to the knowledge of his measures and designs1. Aware that the increase of danger bears a constant proportion to the increase of accomplices, he was unwilling to stake the credit of his own pretensions on the skill, the fidelity, and the consistency of numerous pretenders. Hence arises a striking difference between Mahometanism and Christianity. In the former, it is impossible to expose the falsehood or illustrate the truth of the principal actor, by unmasking the villainy or establishing the honesty of the subordinate agents: in the latter, if there were any plot, it was one of singular intricacy,— a strange concurrence of joint deceivers, each contributing his portion of falsehood, and each resting the proof of his claims, and the success of his cause as much on the assertions and conduct of his confederates as on his own.—In this last case we are furnished with so many means of detecting imposture, that since none has ever been proved, it is just to infer that none has ever
1 See Prideaux's Life of Mahomet.
existed. On the hypothesis of deceit, we must admit a confusion of contradictory explanations, and a series of extravagant improbabilities; but on the supposition of truth, all seems fitly framed and admirably connected, each successive step derives support from the preceding one, and proof, rising progressively on proof, forms an ample and indissoluble mass of accumulated evidence. We have dwelt thus much on this essential distinction between the Christian religion and forged revelations, not only because it seems not to have met with as much attention as its importance deserves, but because it is particularly exemplified in the subject of the present Essay.
The four Evangelists8 introduce the history of our Saviour with a prefatory account of the birth and ministry of St. John the Baptist. We are presented with a man of extraordinary holiness and humility, in an age of pride and corruption, and of no less extraordinary zeal, at a time when the ' lamp of God' seemed extinguished throughout the land; we find him described as the child of miracle3, sanctified from his mother's womb, and as the precursor of the Messiah, inspired with that spirit of prophecy, which had forsaken the Jewish nation for upwards of four hundred years; we see him in the garb of lowliness and severity, the terror of the Pharisee and the censor of royalty, drawing round him in the desert crowds of every age and of every rank, by the power and vehemence with which he announced on the one hand 'the wrath to come/ and on the other, 'the kingdom of God.' Yet the object of the sacred writers was not to transmit to us his character and conduct merely on account of its superior excellence, but to preserve the important testimony he bore to the divine authority of Christ. For this reason they commence their relation by shewing, that he was foretold by the prophets, and that he was come 'for a witness, to bear witness of the light; that all men through him might believe.' Hence the minuteness with which they enter into those particulars which establish his prophetic character; hence the exactness with which they record his repeated declarations that Jesus was the true Messiah; hence also the omission of all such details as were not absolutely necessary to promote their principal design. And indeed the argument for the certainty of the Christian revelation, which arises from their mutual testimony, is at once distinct and conclusive. For what stronger assertions can there be in favour of the claims of Jesus, than the frequent and emphatic declarations of John; and what testimony can be clearer in support of John's pretensions, than the public and positive expressions of Jesus? So inseparable is their connexion, that it is impossible to suppose that John's mission was feigned, without allowing that the mission of Jesus was false; or to admit that John's mission
* John i. 6, 7- See also Mark i. 1, 2. Matt. iii. 1—3. Luke iii. 2—4.
Sermons de Massillon, torn. VIII.