WEDNESDAY, 14th JUNE, 1876,
IN THE TEMPERANCE HALL, LEICESTER.
THE CHAIR WAS OCCUPIED BY MR. W. STANYON OF LEICESTER.
The CHAIRMAN having asked the meeting to refrain from the expression of their feelings, called upon Mr. Roberts to resume the debate.
Mr. ROBERTS: Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, in commencing my remarks this evening, I will comply with the request made by Mr. Bradlaugh last night, and define what I mean by the proposition that the Scriptures are the authentic and reliable records of divine revelation. By the Scriptures, I mean that compilation of writings that passes current in English society under the name of the Bible. By the proposition that these writings are authentic, I mean that they were really written by the persons by whom they profess to have been written, and at the time at which they profess to have been written; and, that, therefore, they are authentic; and, that, besides being authentic, they are reliable; that is, we can put our trust in them as an accurate record of the various matters which they profess to set forth. Those matters are, in my contention, the records of divine revelation, or rather the record involves the setting forth of divine revelation. By that I mean a communication of knowledge concerning God, which we could not otherwise have attained; and by God I mean the primal energy, force, wisdom, power, strength, or whatever other term you choose to employ to define the first creative energy from which things have had their development or their outcome, thinking it necessary only to add that in my belief, the view of that power presented in the Scriptures is the right one, viz., that in its totality, so to speak, that power is a person, having in their highest degree, all the attributes which go to constitute personality, consciousness, perception, volition, & c. Beyond this, I will not occupy time in presenting any abstract view of God, for we might occupy the whole six nights in discussing the thing in a metaphysical way without arriving at anything like a tangible result. In this connection I will remind Mr. Bradlaugh and his friends, that even upon their hypothesis, there is inscrutable mystery at the basis of things as they are. I can call no better witness to that fact than Professor Tyndall, a man great in the particular school to which these friends belong. He in an inaugural address at the meeting of the British Association, at Manchester says: "Science does not in any degree lessen the wonder with which we look at the material universe. At best it only marshalls the phenomena of nature under the head of all its sequences, which are called law; but the great ocean of the unknown simply recedes as we advance, and all the researches that science may make to the end of time will never abridge by one hairsbreadth the infinite expanse of mystery across the boundless ocean. The curiosity of the intellect will always sail towards an ever-vanishing horizon. The region of mystery lies not merely in the distance, but also at our very feet". He says when he has looked at the spring-tide, at the sprouting leaves, and grass, and flowers; when he has seen the general joy of opening life, he has asked himself, "Can it be that there is no being or thing in nature that knows more about these matters than I do? Can it be that I, in my ignorance, represent the highest knowledge existing of these matters in the universe?" And his answer is: "The man who puts that question to himself, if he be not a shallow man; if he be capable of being penetrated by a profound thought, will never answer it by professing that creed of Atheism which has been so lightly attributed to me." Therefore, I think that, in view of the fact that even upon the hypothesis of an insentient nature, so to speak, being the author of what we see, we land ourselves at last against a dead wall of mystery, it would be bootless for me to attempt to define, in a philosophical sense, what I mean by the word God, or the phrase primal energy. Suffice it to say that there is a primal energy in that particular phase in which He or it — if Mr. Bradlaugh prefers that pronoun — is presented in these records which constitute the ancient archives of the Jews. The truth, then, of the proposition I seek to maintain, not by hair-splitting, or farfetched or misty arguments, but by submitting a plain, broad, common sense argument in matters of world-wide notoriety, which the meanest intellect can apprehend when brought to bear.
My contention last night was that, taking the Bible in our hands with the idea of believing it, we should be compelled, on the hypothesis of its being true, to expect to find existing at the present day the nation of the Jews and a corrupt political Christianity; and I pointed to the fact that these are in existence. Further, I produced evidence of the other fact, which ought to be capable of some degree of demonstration, that these writings existed at the time, and were in current circulation amongst the believers of it at the time they were produced. To-night I will take one step further, a more important step, and introduce a more interesting topic, perhaps — though the topic of last night was not uninteresting, and certainly not unimportant, for it constituted a necessary preliminary and a foundation for what is to follow. But the matter I am to speak of to-night appeals more directly to the common cognitions of men. I refer to the uprise in the world of the system bearing the name of Christianity. That system must have a history. Christianity did not spring up out of the ground; it did not come mysteriously out of the atmosphere; it is traceable back to certain circumstances that planted it in the world; and it is to those circumstances that I now call your attention, as furnishing the most palpable evidence of the truth of the proposition for which I am contending. And, first, let me say, there are not only Christians to-day, but there were Christians in the first century, and widely multiplied. It is necessary for me to prove that, as a step in the argument, by way of making it invincible; and I prove it by two citations, which, I think Mr. Bradlaugh will not call in question, and to which, probably, he has the scholastic access, without calling on me to produce a technical reference, though I will do that if he asks it. I refer to the testimony of Tacitus, the Roman historian, who lived at the close of the first century, and I refer to the letter written by Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan in the year 112, asking the Emperor’s advice as to how he was to deal with this rising sect of Christians, if they were to be murdered wholesale, as had been the custom. I will quote his very words, merely to show that there was a great multitude of believers in Christ in that age, as a preliminary to enquiring how came that multitude to be brought into the conviction they were entertaining convictions which brought them nothing but evil as regards this world — for which they suffered death by martyrdom. I find Pliny’s letter at the close of the words of Josephus, although, I believe, it is also extant in the writings of Jerome, and also in a book bearing Pliny’s name, The Epistles of Pliny. This is the letter: "Sir.–It is my constant method to apply myself to you for the resolution of all my doubts. " Now, please, transport yourselves back in imagination to A.D. 112; let the mind act telescopically to-night; let us remember that there have been centuries before our time; let us try to detach our consciousness from the immediate connection of present circumstances, and realise the facts that have gone before. Pliny the Younger, writing to the Emperor Trajan at Rome, says: "I have never been present at the execution of the Christians (by others), on which account I am unacquainted with what used to be inquired into, and what and how far they are to be punished. Nor are my doubts small whether there be not a distinction to be made between the ages (of the accused), and whether tender youth ought to have the same punishment with strong men; whether there be not room for pardon upon repentance, and whether it may not be an advantage to one that had been a Christian that he has forsaken Christianity; whether the bare name, without any crimes besides, or the crime of adhering to the name is to be punished? In the meantime, I have taken this course about those who have been brought before me as Christians. I asked them whether they were Christians or not. If they confessed that they were Christians, I asked them again and a third time, intervening threatenings with the questions. If they persevered in their confessions, I ordered them to be executed; for I did not doubt, but let their confessions be of any sort whatsoever, this positiveness and inflexible obstinacy deserve to punished. There have been some of this mad sect whom I took notice of in particular as Roman citizens, that they might be sent to the city. After some time, as is usual in such circumstances, the crime spread itself, and many more cases came before me . . . . Hereupon, I have put off any further examinations, and have recourse to you, for the affair seems to be well worth consultation, especially on account of the number of those that are in danger; for there are many of every age, of every rank, and of both sexes, who are now and hereafter likely to be called to account and to be in danger; for this superstition is spread like a contagion, not only into cities and towns, but into country villages also, which yet there is reason to hope may be stopped and corrected. To be sure, temples which were almost forsaken, begin already to be frequented, and the holy solemnities, which were long intermitted, begin to be revived. The sacrifices begin to sell well everywhere, of which very few purchasers had of late appeared. Whereby it is easy to suppose how great a multitude of men may be amended if place for repentance be admitted."
Now, observe this testimony, in A.D. 112, points back a long way into the first century, in saying that for a long time the worship of the idols had been given up on account of what he calls "this Christian superstition". The testimony of Tacitus, for the knowledge of which the world, for a long time, was solely indebted to the extracts given by Josephus in his Antiquities, is as follows: "Nero", says Tacitus, "in order to stifle the rumour (that he had himself set Rome on fire) ascribed it to those people who were hated for their wicked practices, and called by the vulgar Christian. These he, Nero, punished exquisitely. The author of the same was Christ, who, in the reign of Tiberius, was brought to punishment by Pontius Pilate, the Procurator not only over Judea, whence this mischief first sprang, but in the City of Rome also". That is sufficient for my present purpose: and by that testimony I have proved the existence, in the first century, of a vast multitude throughout the Roman Empire believing in Christ, and suffering all manner of disadvantages and evils in consequence of that belief; and I have to ask, What was the sacrifice for? I mean what did they sacrifice all these advantages for? Was it for the sake of a religious opinion? Was it for a mere belief in what somebody else had said? If it was, I grant that the argument would only go to show their sincerity; it would not necessarily show that the opinion which they sincerely entertained was a correct one. But I am now to call your attention to the fact that it was not a matter of opinion for which they suffered, but a matter of fact, of which the leading members of their body were personal witnesses. To that fact I wish now to call your attention, and I also particularly invite your consideration to the question of whether there was a possibility of any mistake about the matter. Pliny could not tell the cause of the multiplication of this people; Tacitus could not give the Emperor to understand what was the secrets of the obstinacy of this "vulgar Christian sect" in the maintenance of their convictions unto death. We must, therefore, go to the writings which I showed last night, and which I am prepared to show much more extensively than I did then, were in extensive circulation amongst this multitude of persecuted people. We must go to those writings to find out the secret of that confidence.
Now I first call as evidence a Roman Governor–not one of themselves–Festus, I think, who had arraigned before him Paul, the ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes, and the most effective instrument in the diffusion of the faith of Christ. He heard him himself, and afterwards held a joint hearing with Agrippa. Festus thus states the cause to the King: "Tbere is a certain man left in bonds by Felix, about whom, when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me, desiring to have judgment against him, to whom I answered, It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man to die before that he which is accused have the accusers face to face, and have license to answer for himself concerning the crime laid against him. Therefore, when they were come thither, without any delay on the morrow, I sat on the judgment-seat, and commanded the man to be brought forth; against whom, when the accusers stood up, they brought none accusation of such things as I supposed, but had certain questions against him of their own superstition, and of one Jesus, who was dead, WHOM PAUL AFFIRMED TO BE ALIVE." That is Festus’s definition of the question that was at issue between Paul and his accusers; was it a correct definition by Festus? In answer to that, I invite your attention to a number of statements by the apostles themselves, which go to show that that was the matter involved in their public testimony. In the first chapter of Acts, at a meeting of the apostles after the ascension of Christ, and before the Day of Pentecost, when the question of the vacancy created by the apostasy of Judas came to be considered, this counsel was given one to another: "Wherefore of these men who have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of HIS RESURRECTION. " In the second chapter of the Acts, at the 32nd verse, Peter, in making a speech to a great congregation of Jews, who had been brought together by the great marvel which we shall have to consider at a later stage of the evening, viz., a number of men speaking languages they had never learnt, says: "This Jesus hath God raised up, WHEREOF WE ALL ARE WITNESSES". Witnesses! In Acts 3:14, we have a speech delivered before the Jewish authorities, who tried to suppress this testimony: "Ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; and killed the Prince of Life, whom God hath raised from the dead; WHEREOF WE ARE WITNESSES." "Whereof we are witnesses". Acts 4: 10: "Be it known unto you all" –this is another speech on another occasion–"and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved". Acts 5:29: "Peter and the other apostles answered and said" — again addressing themselves to the magistrates on the bench, who were telling them on no account to persist in this preaching of theirs, as they were filling Jerusalem with sedition, and that it would be at the peril of their liberty and life if they did; their answer is, "We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with His right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins unto Israel. And WE ARE HIS WITNESSES OF THESE THINGS, and so is also the Holy Spirit whom God hath given to them that obey Him,"–the full pith of which latter statement we shall have to consider upon a subsequent occasion.
There are other statements of the same sort, but these are sufficient for the present purpose, and, therefore, I will leave it there, and ask, Was their witness true? What did they allege as the basis of their convictions upon the point? Acts 4:19:"Peter and John answered and said unto them"–on another occasion before magistrates again–"Whether it be right, in the sight of God, to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the THINGS WHICH WE HAVE SEEN AND HEARD." Acts 1:3: "To whom" –that is to the disciples–"he (Christ) showed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days"–nearly six weeks–"speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God." In Acts 10:39, in the house of Cornelius, Peter declares: "WE ARE WITNESSES OF ALL THINGS WHICH HE DID both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they slew and hanged on a tree: him God raised up the third day, and showed him openly; not unto all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead". Therefore, observe, they were not put to death for entertaining a certain religious opinion; they were not put to death because they believed on the testimony of somebody else that Christ rose. Their testimony was: "We who were with him during his life in the flesh — we who saw him crucified, have seen him alive and spent six weeks in his company, and he parted with us upon a certain occasion, with a promise to return." And now comes the question, What led them to make that statement? Did they get anything by it? Why! they just got all the things that all men everywhere, in every country and in every age, seek to avoid; they got poverty, they got insult, they got imprisonment, they got death. Everyone of the apostles lost their lives for it; perhaps I ought to qualify that statement; some of them, I believe, according to ecclesiastical tradition, came to a peaceful end; but, nevertheless, a great proportion of them suffered death for their testimony. Therefore, their sincerity cannot be impugned; for there is never a lie told by an impostor but that it is to get some good to himself by it; and as soon as the good does not come, and as soon as the bad begins to come, you will see him flinch and turn round.
This is no case of imposture; therefore, the question is, were they mistaken? In considering that, let us regard the circumstances: whether those circumstances were of such a character as to admit the possibility of mistake. In the first place, they did not expect Christ to die; in Luke 18:31, we read: "Christ took unto him the Twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished. For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on; and they shall scourge him and put him to death; and the third day he shall rise again. And they understood none of these things: and this saying was hidfrom them, neither knew they the things which were spoken." In the 24th chapter of Luke you have the case to which I called attention last night; verse 44 is a further amplification of it. He said to them — this is after his resurrection–"These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the law of Moses, and in the Prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understandings, that they might understand the Scriptures, and said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day."