On quotations generally in the early Christian writers.
The subject then proposed for our investigation is the extent to which the canonical Gospels are attested by the early Christian writers, or, in other words, the history of the process by which they became canonical. This will involve an enquiry into two things; first, the proof of the existence of the Gospels, and, secondly, the degree of authority attributed to them. Practically this second enquiry must be very subordinate to the first, because the data are much fewer; but it too shall be dealt with, cursorily, as the occasion arises, and we shall be in a position to speak upon it definitely before we conclude.
It will be convenient to follow the example that is set us in ‘Supernatural Religion,’ and to take the first three, or Synoptic, Gospels separately from the fourth.
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At the outset the question will occur to us, On what principle is the enquiry to be conducted? What sort of rule or standard are we to assume? In order to prove either the existence or the authority of the Gospels, it is necessary that we should examine the quotations from them, or what are alleged to be quotations from them, in the early writers. Now these quotations are notoriously lax. It will be necessary then to have some means of judging, what degree and kind of laxity is admissible; what does, and what does not, prevent the reference of a quotation to a given source.
The author of ‘Supernatural Religion,’ indeed, has not felt the necessity for this preliminary step. He has taken up, as it were, at haphazard, the first standard that came to his hand; and, not unnaturally, this is found to be very much the standard of the present literary age, when both the mechanical and psychological conditions are quite different from those that prevailed at the beginning of the Christian era. He has thus been led to make a number of assertions which will require a great deal of qualification. The only sound and scientific method is to make an induction (if only a rough one) respecting the habit of early quotation generally, and then to apply it to the particular cases.