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The Trial of the Witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

by Thomas Sherlock

N.B. Not only Mr. Woolston's objections in his Sixth Discourse on our Saviour's Miracles, but those also which he and others have published in other Books, are here considered.

First Published about the Year 1729

Resurrection of Jesus

We were, not long since, some Gentlemen of the inns of court together, each to other so well known, that no man's presence was a confinement to any other, from speaking his mind on any subject that happened to arise in conversation. The meeting was without design, and the discourse, as in like cases, various. Among other things we fell upon the subject of Woolston's trial and conviction, which had happened some few days before. That led to a debate, How the law finds in such cases? what punishment it inflicts? and, in general, whether the law ought at all to interpose in controversies of this kind? We were not agreed in these points. One, who maintained the favorable side to Woolston, discovered a great liking and approbation of his discourses against the miracles of Christ, and seemed to think his arguments unanswerable. To which another replied, I wonder that one of your abilities, and bred to the profession of the law, which teaches us to consider the nature of evidence, and its proper weight, can be of that opinion: I am sure you would be unwilling to determine a property of five shillings upon such evidence, as you now think material enough to overthrow the miracles of Christ.

It may easily be imagined, that this opened a door to much dispute, and determined the conversation for the remainder of the evening to this subject. The dispute ran thro' almost all the particulars mentioned in Woolston's pieces; but the thread of it was broken by several digressions, and the pursuit of things which were brought accidentally into the discourse. At length one of the company said pleasantly; Gentlemen, you don't argue like lawyers; if I were judge in this cause, I would hold you better to the point. The company took the hint, and cried, they should be glad to have the cause reheard, and him to be the judge. The Gentlemen who had engaged with mettle and spirit in a dispute which arose accidentally, seemed very unwilling to be drawn into a formal controversy; and especially the Gentleman who argued against Woolston, thought the matter grew too serious for him, and excused himself from undertaking a controversy in religion, of all others the most momentous. But he was told, that the argument should be confined merely to the nature of the evidence; and that might be considered, without entering into any such controversy as he would avoid; and, to bring the matter within bounds, and under one view, the evidence of Christ's resurrection, and the exceptions taken to it, should be the only subject of the conference. With such persuasion he suffered himself to be persuaded, and promised to give the company, and their new-made judge, a meeting that day fortnight.

The judge and the rest of the company were for bringing on the cause a week sooner; but the council for Woolston took the matter up, and said, Consider, Sir, the Gentleman is not to argue out of Littleton, Plowden, or Coke, authors to him well known; but he must have his authorities from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; and a fortnight is time little enough of all conscience to gain a familiarity with a new acquaintance: and, turning to the Gentleman, he said, I'll call upon you before the fortnight is out, to see how reverend an appearance you make behind Hammond on the New Testament, a concordance on one hand, and a folio Bible with references on the other. You shall be welcome, Sir, replied the Gentleman; and perhaps you may find some company more to your own taste. He is but a poor council who studies on one side of the question only; and therefore I will have your friend Woolston, Tl,and Cs,to entertain you when you do me the favor of the visit. Upon this we parted in good humour, and all pleased with the appointment made, except the two Gentlemen who were to provide the entertainment.

The Second Day

The company met at the time appointed: but as it happened in this, as in like cases it often does, that some friends to some of the company, who were not of the party the first day, had got notice of the meeting; and the Gentlemen who were to debate the question, found they had a more numerous audience than they expected or desired. He especially who was to maintain the evidence for the resurrection, began to excuse the necessity he was under of disappointing their expectation, alledging that he was not prepared; and he had persisted in excusing himself, but that the strangers who perceived what the case was, offered to withdraw; which the Gentleman would by no means consent to: they insisting to go, he said, he would much rather submit himself to their candour, unprepared as he was, than be guilty of such rudeness, as to force them to leave the company. Upon which one of the company, smiling, said, It happens luckily that our number is increased: when we were last together, we appointed a judge, but we quite forgot a jury: and now, I think, we are good men and true, sufficient to make one. This thought was pursued in several allusions to legal proceedings; which created some mirth, and had this good effect, that it dispersed the solemn air, which the mutual compliments upon the difficulty before mentioned had introduced, and restored the ease and good humour natural to the conversation of Gentlemen.

The judge perceiving the disposition of the company, thought it a proper time to begin, and called out, Gentlemen of the jury, take your places; and immediately seated himself at the upper end of the table.

The company sat round him, and the judge called upon the council for Woolston to begin.

Mr. A. Council for Woolston, addressing himself to the judge, said,

May it please your Lordship, I conceive the Gentleman on the other side ought to begin, and lay his evidence, which he intends to maintain, before the court; till that is done, it is to no purpose for me to object. I amy perhaps object to something which he will not admit to be any part of his evidence; and therefore I apprehend, the evidence ought in the first place to be distinctly stated.

Judge. Mr. B What say you to that?

Mr. B. Council on the other side:

My Lord, If the evidence I am to maintain, were to suppose any new claim; if I were to gain any thing which I am not already possessed of, the Gentleman would be in the right: but the evidence is old, and is matter of record; and I have been long in possession of all that I claim under it. If the Gentleman has anything to say to dispossess me, let him produce it; otherwise I have no reason to bring my own title into question. And this I take to be the known method of proceeding in such cases: no man is obliged to produce his title to his possession; it is sufficient if he maintain it when it is called in question.

Mr A. Surely, my Lord, the Gentleman mistakes the case. I can never admit myself to be out of possession of my understanding and reason; and since he would put me out of this possession, and compel me to admit things incredible, in virtue of the evidence he maintains, he ought to set forth his claim, or leave the world to be directed by common sense.

Judge. Sir, you say right, upon supposition that the truth of the Christian religion were the point in question. In that case it would be necessary to produce the evidence for the Christian religion.