The constancy, and by consequence the sufferings, of the Christians of this period, is also referred to by Epictetus, who imputes their intrepidity to madness, or to a kind of fashion or habit; and about fifty years afterwards, by Marcus Aurelius, who ascribes it to obstinacy. “Is it possible (Epictetus asks) that a man may arrive at this temper, and become indifferent to those things from madness or from habit, as the Galileans?” “Let this preparation of the mind (to die) arise from its own judgment, and not from obstinacy like the Christians.” (Epict. I. iv. C. 7.) (Marc. Aur. Med. 1. xi. c. 3.)
There is satisfactory evidence that many, professing to be original witnesses of the Christian miracles, passed there lives in labours, dangers, and sufferings, voluntarily undergone in attestation of the accounts which they delivered, and solely in consequence of their belief of those accounts; and that they also submitted, from the same motives, to new rules of conduct.
Of the primitive condition of Christianity, a distant only and general view can be acquired from heathen writers. It is in our own books that the detail and interior of the transaction must be sought for. And this is nothing different from what might be expected. Who would write a history of Christianity, but a Christian? Who was likely to record the travels, sufferings, labours, or successes of the apostles, but one of their own number, or of their followers? Now these books come up in their accounts to the full extent of the proposition which we maintain. We have four histories of Jesus Christ. We have a history taking up the narrative from his death, and carrying on an account of the propagation of the religion, and of some of the most eminent persons engaged in it, for a space of nearly thirty years. We have, what some may think still more original, a collection of letters, written by certain principal agents in the business upon the business, and in the midst of their concern and connection with it. And we have these writings severally attesting the point which we contend for, viz. the sufferings of the witnesses of the history, and attesting it in every variety of form in which it can be conceived to appear: directly and indirectly, expressly and incidentally, by assertion, recital, and allusion, by narratives of facts, and by arguments and discourses built upon these facts, either referring to them, or necessarily presupposing them.
I remark this variety, because, in examining ancient records, or indeed any species of testimony, it is, in my opinion, of the greatest importance to attend to the information or grounds of argument which are casually and undesignedly disclosed; forasmuch as this species of proof is, of all others, the least liable to be corrupted by fraud or misrepresentation.
I may be allowed therefore, in the inquiry which is now before us, to suggest some conclusions of this sort, as preparatory to more direct testimony.