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had been furnished with abundant experience of what reason and philosophy, in their highest state of cultivation, could do, in the way of directing the human mind to the attainment of yirtue and happiness; and what was the result? The very wisest among them were bewildered in fruitless speculations about the nature of the chief good, and equally so about the way of attaining it. Some of them, indeed, admitted that it consisted in virtue ; but then, if we enquire wherein they supposed virtue to consist, we shall find their notions as discordant and undefined as their ideas of happiness itself were vague and desultory. ARISTOTLE made the existence of virtue to depend upon the possession of an abundance of the good things of this world ; and even laid it down as a principle that, “without the gifts of fortune, virtue is not sufficient for happiness, but that a wise man must be miserable in poverty and sickness.” DIOGENES, from whose pride and stoical austerity one might have expected sentiments of a different nature, maintained that a poor
old man was the most miserable thing in life. Even Plato, the great preceptor of Aristotle, taught his followers that happiness comprehended the possession of wisdom, health, good fortune, honour, and riches; and maintained that the man who enjoyed all these must be perfectly happy. Zeno and his followers held it as a principle that all crimes were equal. Thales, the founder of the Ionian sect, being asked how he thought a man might bear affliction with the greatest ease, answered, “By seeing his enemies in a worse condition.” EPICURUS had no notion of justice but as it was profitable, and the consequence was that the morals of his followers were proverbially scandalous; for, though their master taught that happiness consisted in virtue, he made virtue itself to consist in following nature, and thus he eventually led his disciples into such gross immorality that, according to their manner of life, virtue and voluptuousness seemed to be convertible terms with them: and ever since an Epicure is appropriated to every character in which excess and sensual indulgence are found to meet.
Such was the hopeless and forlorn condition into which the human race had sunk, and such the wretched aspect of the Heathen or Gentile world, at the time of the Messiah's appearance upon earth. The Greeks and Romans had civilized the world;
philosophy had done its utmost ; literature, and arts, and the sciences in every department, had been cultivated to the highest perfection; but what, under all these advantages, was the real condition of our species in reference to man's highest end and aim, the knowledge of the true God and the duties which he owes him—the actual state of religion and morals? We have it strikingly described by the great apostle of the Gentiles :
They walked in the vanity of their mind; having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that was in them, because of the blindness of their heart: and, being past feeling, they had given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness:they were without hope, and without God in the world.”—Eph. ü. 12, and iv. 17, 18.*
See Brucker's History of Philosophy, translated by Dr. Enfield ;-and MoSHEIM's Commentaries on the affairs of the Christians before the time of Constantine the Great, translated by R. S. Vidal, Vol. I. INTROD. ch. i.
THE STATE OF THE JEWISH NATION AT THE TIME OF THE
BIRTH OF CHRIST.
The privileges which the Jews at this time enjoyed, above all other nations, were many and distinguished; but, in enumerating them, the apostle lays the principal stress upon their being favoured with a divine revelation, to guide them in matters of the highest importance to their present and everlasting happiness :they had the oracles of God in their hands; the writings of Moses and the Prophets, those holy men of God who spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. † Yet, with these incalculable advantages, the condition of the people in general was not much superior to that of the Gentiles.
The civil government of Judæa, at the time of Christ's birth, was vested in the hands of a Roman stipendiary, named Herod the Great—a title to which he could have no pretensions, except from the magnitude of his vices. Nature, it is true, had not withheld from him the talents requisite for a lofty and brilliant course of life; but such was his jealous disposition, such the ferocity of his temper, his devotedness to luxury, pomp, and magnificence, so madly extravagant, and so much beyond his means; in short, so extensive and enormous was the catalogue of his vices, that he became an object of utter detestation to the afflicted people over whom he swayed the kingly sceptre. Instead of cherishing and protecting his subjects, he appears to have made them sensible of his authority merely by oppression and violence; so that they complained to the Emperor Augustus, at Rome, of his cruelties, declaring they could not have suffered more had a wild beast reigned over them; and Eusebius affirms that the cruelty of this nefarious despot far surpassed whatever had been represented in tragedy! Herod was not ignorant of the hatred which he had drawn upon himself; but, to soften its asperity, he became a professed devotee to the Jewish religion,
+ Rom. iii. 2, and 2 Pet. i. 21.
and at a vast expense restored their Temple, which through age had fallen into decay; yet the effect of all this was destroyed by his still conforming to the manners and habits of those who worshipped a plurality of gods; and so many things were countenanced, in direct opposition to the Jewish religion, that the hypocrisy of the tyrant's professions were too manifest to admit of a doubt.
On the death of Herod, the government of Judæa was divided by the Emperor Augustus amongst his three surviving sons. Archelaus, the eldest of the three, was appointed governor of Judæa, Idumæa, and Samaria, under the title of Ethnarch. Antipas presided over Galilee and Peræa ; whilst Batanea, Trachonitis, Auranitis, with part of the neighbouring territory, were assigned to Philip. The two latter, from their having a fourth part of the province of Judæa allotted to each, were styled Tetrarchs. Archelaus, who inherited all the vices of his father, with but few of his better qualities, completely exhausted the patience of the Jews; and, by a series of the most injurious and oppressive acts, drove them, in the tenth year of his reign, to lay their complaints before the Emperor Augustus, who, after investigating the merits of the case, deposed the Ethnarch, and banished him to Vienne in Gaul.
On the expulsion of Archelaus, the greater part of Palestine, or Judæa, was reduced by the Roman government into the form of a province, and placed under the superintendance of a governor, who was subject to the control of the president of Syria. It is probable that this arrangement at first met with the ready concurrence of the Jews, who, on the death of Herod, had petitioned Augustus that the distinct regal government might no longer be continued to them, but that their country might be received under his own immediate protection, and treated as a part of the Roman Empire. The change, however, instead of producing an alleviation of misery to this unhappy people, brought with it an intolerable increase of their calamities. For, independently of the avarice and injustice of the governors, to which there were no bounds, it proved an intolerable grievance to them, who considered their nation to be God's peculiar people, that they should be obliged to pay tribute to a Heathen, and an enemy of the true God, like Cæsar, and live in subjection to those who worshipped false deities. Add to which, that the extortion of the Publicans, who after the Roman manner were entrusted with the collection of the revenue, and for whose continual and flagrant abuses of authority it was seldom possible to obtain any sort of redress, became a subject of infinite dissatisfaction and complaint. And, to crown the whole, the constant presence of their governors, surrounded as they were by a multitude of foreign attendants of all descriptions, and protected by a Roman military guard, quartered, with their Eagles and various other ensigns of superstition, in the centre of Jerusalem, their holy city, kept the sensibility of the Jews continually on the rack, and excited in their minds a degree of indignation bordering on fury. They naturally considered their religion to be disgraced and insulted by these innovations—their holy places defiled—and in fact themselves, with all that they held sacred, polluted and brought into contempt. To these causes are to be attributed the frequent tumults, factions, seditions, and murders, by which it is well known that these unfortunate people accelerated their own destruction.
If any vestige of liberty or happiness could have been possessed by a people thus circumstanced, it was effectually cut off by those who held the second place in the civil government under the Romans and the sons of Herod, and who also had the supreme direction in every thing pertaining to religion, namely, the chief priests and the seventy elders, of whom the Sanhedrim or national council was composed. Josephus tells us that the High Priests were the most abandoned of mortals; that they generally obtained their dignified stations either through the influence of money or court sycophancy; and that they shrank from no species of criminality which might contribute to support them in the possession of an authority thus iniquitously purchased. Under a full conviction of the precarious tenure on which they held their situation, it became a leading object of their concern to accumulate, either by fraud or force, such a quantity of wealth as might enable them to gain the rulers of the state over to their interest, and drive away all competitors, or else yield them, when deprived of their dignity, the means of living at their ease in retirement.
The Sanhedrim, or national council, being composed of men