« PreviousContinue »
VIET OF RELIGIONS.
CONTAINING A BRIEF ACCOUNT OF THE STATE OF TIIE WORLD AT THE TIME OF CHRIST'S
APPEARANCE UPON EARTH.
STATE OF THE WORLD IN GENERAL AT THE BIRTH OF JESUS CHRIST.
WHEN Jesus Christ made his appearance on earth, a great part of the world was subject to the Roman empire. This empire was much the largest temporal monarchy that had ever existed : so that it was called, "all the world.” (Luke ii. 1.) The time when the Romans first subjugated the land of Judea, was between sixty and seventy years before Christ was horn; and soon after this the Roman empire rose to its greatest extent and splendour. To this government the world continued subject till Christ came, and many hundred years afterwards. The remoter nations who had submitted to the yoke of this mighty empire, were ruled either by Roman governors, invested with temporary commissions, or by their own princes and laws, in subordination to the republic, whose sovereignty was acknowledged, and to which the conquered kings, who were conținued in their own dominions, owed their borrowed majesty. At the same time the Roman people and their venerable senate, though they had not lost all shadow of liberty, were yet in reality reduced to a state of servile submission to Augustus Cæsar; who by artifice, perfidy, and bloodshed, attained an enormous degree of power, and united in his own person the pompous titles of Emperor, Pontiff, Censor, Tribune of the People : in a word, all the great offices of the state.*
At this period the Romans, according to Daniel's prophetic description, had trodden down the kingdoms, and by their exceeding strength devoured the whole earth. However, by enslaving the world, they civilized it; and whilst they oppressed mankind, they united them together. The same laws were every where established, and the same languages understood. Men approached nearer to one another in sentiments and manners; and the intercourse between the most distant regions of the earth was rendered secure and agreeable. Hence the benign influence of letters and philosophy was spread abroad in countries which had been before enveloped in the darkest ignorance.
Just before Christ was born the Roman empire not only rose to its greatest height, but was also settled in peace. Augustus Cæsar had been for many years establishing the state of the Roman empire, and subduing his enemies, till the very year that Christ was born : then, all his enemies being reduced to subjection, his dominion over the world appeared to be settled in its greatest glory. This remarkable peace, after so many ages of tumult and war, was a fit preļude to the ushering of the glorious Prince of Peace
* Mosheim's Ecclesiastical History, vol. i. p. 16. † Robertson's Sermon on the Situation of the World at
The time of Christ's appearance,
into the world. The tranquillity which then reigned was necessary to enable the ministers of Christ to execute with success their sublime commission to the human race.
In the situation into which the providence of God had brought the world, the gospel in a few years
reached those remote corners of the earth into which it could not otherwise have penetrated for many ages.
All the heathen nations, at the time of Christ's appearance on earth, worshipped a multiplicity of gods and demons, whose favour they courted by obscene and ridiculous ceremonies, and whose anger they endeavoured to appease by the most abominable cruel
Every nation had its respective gods, over which one more excellent than the rest presided; yet in such a manner that the supreme deity was himself controlled by the rigid decrees of fate, or by what the philosophers called eternal necessity. The gods of the east were different from those of the Gauls, the Germans, and other northern nations. The Grecian divinities differed from those of the Egyptians, who deified plants, and a great variety of the productions both of nature and art. Each people had also their peculiar manner of worshipping and appeasing its respective deities. In process of time, however, the Greeks and Romans grew as ambitious in their religious pretensions as in their political claims. They maintained that their gods, though under different appellations, were the objects of religious worship in all nations; and therefore they gave the names of their deities to those of other countries.
The deities of almost all nations were either ancient heroes, renowned for noble exploits and worthy deeds, or kings and generals who had founded empires, or women who had become illustrious by remarkable actions or useful inventions. The merit of those emi.
* See Mosheim and Robertson.
+ Mosheim, vol. i. p. 18,
nent persons, contemplated by their posterity witla enthusiastic gratitude, was the cause of their exaltation to celestial honours. The natural world furnished another kind of deities; and as the sun, moon, and stars, shine with a lustre superior to that of all other material beings, they received religious homage from almost all the nations of the world. *
From those beings of a nobler kind, idolatry descended into an enormous multiplication of inferior powers; so that in many countries mountains, trees, and rivers, the earth, and sea, and wind, nay, even virtues and vices, and diseases, had their shrines attended by devout and zealous worshippers. +
These deities were honoured with rites and sacri, fices of various kinds, according to their respective nature and offices. Most nations offered animals; and human sacrifices were universal in ancient times. They were in use among the Egyptians till the reign of Amasis : they were never so common among
the Greeks and Romans; yet they were practised by them on extraordinary occasions. Porphyry says that the Greeks were wont to sacrifice men when they went to war. He relates also that human sacrifices were offered at Rome till the reign of Adrian, who ordered them to be abolished in most places. I
Pontiffs, priests, and ministers, distributed into several classes, presided over the pagan worship, and were appointed to prevent disorder in the performance of religious rites. The sacerdotal order, which was
* The learned Mr. Bryant, in his analysis of ancient mythology, supposes that the worship of the powers of nature, principally the sun, was ihe original idolatry, which prevailed in all nations ; that the characters of the pagan deities of different countries melt into each other; and ibat the whole crowd of gods and goddesses mean only the powers of nature, (especially the sun) branched out and diversified by a puinber.of different names and attributes. Sir William Jones, in his history of the antiquities of Asia, appears to have embraced the same opinion. See Bryant, vol. i. p. 2, 308. See also Sir William Jones's Dissertation of the gods of Greece, Italy, and India.
+ Mosheim, vol, i. p. 20. Dr, Priestley's Discourses relating to the Evidences of Revealed Religion.
supposed to be distinguished by an immediate intercourse and friendship with the gods, abused its authority in the basest manner, to deceive an ignorant and wretched people.*
The religious worship of the pagans was confined to certain times and places. The statues, and other representations of the gods, were placed in the temples, and supposed to be animated in an incomprehensible manner; for they carefully avoided the imputation of worshipping inanimate beings: and therefore pretended that the divinity represented by the statue was really present in it, if the dedication were truly and properly made.
Besides the public worship of the gods, to which all without exception were admitted, there were certain religious rites celebrated in secret by the Greeks, and several eastern countries, to which a small number was allowed access. These were called mysteries;/ and persons who desired an initiation were obliged previously to exhibit satisfactory proofs of their fidelity and patience, by passing through various trials and ceremonies of the most disagreeable kind. The secret of these mysteries was kept in the strictest manner, as the initiated could not reveal any thing that passed in them, without exposing their lives to the most imminent danger.
These secret doctrines were taught in the mysteries of Eleusis, and in those of Bacchus, and other divi
* Notwithstanding the ignorance which prevailed respecting religion, theAugustan was the most learned and polite age the world ever saw. The love of literature was the universal passion.
† Mosheim, vol. i. po 22, The vulgar were carefully excluded from these secrets, which were reserved for the nobility and sacerdotal tribe. The priests, who had devised these allegories, understood their original import, and bequeathed them as an inestimable legacy to their children. In order to celebrate these mysteries with the greater secresy, the temples were so constructed as to favour the artifice of the priests. The fanes, in which they used to execute their sacred functions, and perform the ceremonies of their religion, were subterraneous mansions, constructed with such wonderful dexterity, that every thing which appeared in them breathed an air of solemn secresy, . See Encyclopædia Britanica, vol. xii, p. 501: