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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; I 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, the Augustan was the most learned and polite age the world ever saw. The love of literature was the universal passion.
+ Mosheim, vol, i. p. 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 inport, 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 Britannica, vol, xii. p. 501,
nities; but the reigning religion was totally external It held out no body of doctrines, no public instruction to participate on stated days in the established worship. The only faith required was, to believe that the gods exist, and reward virtne either in this life or in that to come ;* the only practice, to perform at intervals some religious acts, such as appearing in the solemn festivals, and sacrificing at the public altars.t
The spirit and genius of the pagan religion was not calculated to promote moral virtue. Stately temples, expensive sacrifices, pompous ceremonies, and magnificent festivals, were the objects presented to its votaries. But just notions of God, obedience to his moral laws, purity of heart, and sanctity of life, were not once mentioned as ingredients in religious service. No repentance of past erimes, and no future amendment of conduct, were ever prescribed by the pagans, as proper means of appeasing their offended deities, Sacrifice a chosen victim, bow down before a hallowed image, be initiated in the sacred mysteries, and the wrath of the gods shall be averted-the thunder shall drop from their hands.
The gods and goddesses to whom public worship was paid, exhibited to their adorers examples of egregious crimes, rather than of-useful and illustrious vir. tues. It was permitted to consider Jupiter, the father of the gods, as an usurper, who expelled his father from the throne of the universe, and who was in his turn to be one day driven from it by his son. The priests were little solicitous to animate the people to virtuous conduct, either by precept or example: they plainly enough declared that all which was essential to the true worship of the gods was contained in the
As to what regarded the future rewards of virtue, and punishments of vice, the general notions were partly uncertai, partly licentious, and little calculaced to promote virtue,
* Travels of Anac harsis the Younger in Greece, by the Abbe Barthelemi, nol, ii. p, 311.
Robertson. § Travels of Anacharsis.
rites and institutions which the people had received by tradition from their ancestors. Hence the wiser part of mankind, about the time of Christ's birth, looked upon the whole system of religion as a just object of ridicule and contempt.
The consequence of this state of theology was an universal corruption of manners, which discovered itself in the impunity of the most flagitious crimes.* The colours are not too strong which the apostle employs in drawing the character of the heathens. Rom. i. 21, 22. Eph. iv. 17, 18, 19.
At the time of Christ's appearance on earth, the religion of the Romans, as well as their arms, had extended itself throughout a great part of the world. Those nations who before their subjection had their own gods, and their own particular religious institutions, were persuaded by degrees to admit into their worship a great variety of the sacred rites and customs of the conquerors.
When from the sacred rites of the ancient Romans we pass to review the other religions which prevailed in the world, it will appear obvious that the most remarkable may be properly divided into two classes ; one of which will comprehend the religious systems which owe their existence to political views, and the other of those which seem to have been formed for military purposes. The religions of most of the eastern nations may be ranked in the former class, especially that of the Persians, Egyptians and Indians, which appear to have been solely calculated for the preservation of the state, the support of the royal authority and grandeur, the maintenance of public peace, and the advancement of civil virtues. The religious system of the northern nations may be comprehended under the military class, since all the traditions among the Germans, the Britons, the Celts, and the Goths, concerning their divinities, have a manifest tendency
* Mosheim, vol. I, p. 23.
+ Ibid. p. 24.
to excite and nourish fortitude, ferocity, an insensibility of danger, and contempt of life.*
At this time christianity broke forth from the east like a rising sun, and dispelled the universal religious darkness which obscured every part of the globe. "The noblest people (says Dr. Robertson) that ever entered upon the stage of the world, appear to have been only instruments in the divine hand for the execution of wise purposes concealed from themselves. The Roman ambition and bravery paved the way,
prepared the world for the reception of the christian doctrine. They fought and conquered, that it might triumph with the greater ease. (See Isai. x. 7.) By means of their victories the overruling providence of God established an empire, which really possesses that perpetuity and eternal duration which they vainly arrogated to their own, He erected a throne which shall continue for ever; and of the encrease of that government there shall be no end.”+
It has been mentioned, to the honour of christianity, that it rose and flourished in a learned, enquiring, and discerning age; and made the most rapid and amazing progress through the immense empire of Rome to its remotest limits, when the world was in its most civilized state, and in an age that was universally distinguished for science and erudition.I
STATE OF THE JEWISH NATION AT THE BIRTH OF JESUS CHRIST.
The state of the jews was not much better than that of other nations, at the time of Christ's appearance on earth. They were governed by Herod, who was himself tributary to the Roman people. His government was of the most vexatious and oppressive kind. By a cruel, suspicious, and overbearing temper,
Addison's Evidences and Harwood's Introduction, vol. i. p. 82..
he drew upon himself the aversion of all, not excepting those who lived upon his bounty.
Under his administration, and through his influence, the luxury of the Romans was introduced into Palestine, accompanied with the vices of that licentious people. In a word, Judea, governed by Herod, groaned under all the corruption which might be expected from the authority and example of a prince, who, though a jew in outward profession, was, in point of morals and practice, a contemner of all laws human and divine. *
After the death of this tyrant, the Romans divided the government of Judea between his sons. In this division one half of the kingdom was given to Archelaus, under the title of Exarch. Archelaus was so corrupt and wicked a prince, that at last both Jews and Samaritans joined in a petition against him to Augustus, who banished him from his dominions about ten years after the death of Herod the Great. Judea was by this sentence reduced to a Roman province, and ordered to be taxed.+
The governors whom the Romans appointed over Judea were frequently changed, but seldom for the better. About the sixteenth year of Christ, Pontius Pilaté was appointed governor, the whole of whose administration, according to Josephus, was one continual scene of venality, rapine, and of every kind of savage cruelty. Such a governor was ill calculated to appease the ferments occasioned by the late tax. Indeed Pilate was so far from attempting to appease, that he greatly inflamed them, by taking every occa-sion of introducing his standards, with images, pictures, and consecrated shields, into their city; and at last by attempting to drain the treasury of the temple, under pretence of bringing an aqueduct into Jerusalem. The most remarkable transaction of his government, however, was his condemnation of Jesus Christ;