Song of Solomon
THE GREAT COMMENTARY OF CORNELIUS À LAPIDE
THE EXCELLENCE AND MAJESTY
THE FOUR GOSPELS
I PROCEED from the Old Testament to the New, from Solomon to Christ, as from a rivulet to a fountain: from Proverbs to Gospels, as from a river to the Ocean of Wisdom. Speaking of the Gospels I would place a crown upon the Scriptures of the New Testament.
The dignity, usefulness, and majesty of Scripture are so great that it surpasses the books of all philosophers and theologians, both Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, as much as Divine surpasses human wisdom. For Scripture is the Word of God. It is the very utterance of God, by means of which God enunciates His wisdom to us, and points out to us the way to virtue, health, and eternal happiness. S. Augustine asserts that “Sacred Scripture is an Encyclopædia of all the sciences. Here is Natural Philosophy, because all the causes of all creatures are in God, the Creator. Here is Moral Philosophy, because a good and honest life is derived from no other source than the love of God and our neighbour as they ought to be loved. Here is Logic, because Truth and the Light of the rational soul are God. Here is Political Science, for a really flourishing State can neither be founded nor preserved except upon the foundation, and by the bond of faith, and firm concord, when the common good of all is loved: that is to say, when God is loved above all things, and when men love one another in Him, and for His sake.” After an interval he adds, “By the Scriptures depraved minds are corrected, little minds are nourished, great minds are delighted. The only minds which are hostile to this doctrine are those which either by going astray know not its healthfulness, or being sick dislike its medicine.”
Sacred Scripture is the art of arts, the science of sciences: it is the Pandora of Wisdom. In our own time, S. Theresa, a woman endowed with the spirit of prophecy, and renowned throughout all Spain for the glory of her miracles, and the sanctity of her life, was taught by God that all the troubles of the Church, all the evils in the world, flow from this source, that men do not, by clear and sound knowledge, and serious consideration, penetrate into the verities of Sacred Scripture. See Franciscus Ribera, her Life.
S. Basil (Hom. in Ps. I) says, “Holy Scripture is the universal depository of medicine for the cure of souls. From it every one may select the remedy which is salutary and appropriate for his own disease.”
Thus it was that in the age of the martyrs, the Church drew from Holy Scripture courage and fortitude; in the times of the doctors aptitude both to learn and teach, the illumination of wisdom, floods of eloquence; in the ages of heresy, confirmation of faith, whereby errors were plucked up: in prosperity she learns from Holy Scripture humility and modesty, in adversity greatness of soul. Lastly, if at any time in all the gliding years the Church be deformed by the wrinkles of old age, by spots, or blemishes, it is from the Scriptures she derives correction of morals, and a return to her primitive state of virtue and dignity.
Now, of all the Divine writings, the Gospel is the most excellent, says S. Augustine (de Consens. Evan. c. I). “For that which the Law and the Prophets foretold was to be is shown in the Gospel to be accomplished. Prophecy is the Gospel veiled as the Gospel is prophecy unveiled.” Hear S. Ambrose: “It is the Gospel by which the martyr ascends to heaven. The Gospel is the sea in which the Apostles fish: wherein the net is cast to which the kingdom of heaven is like. The Gospel is the sea in which the mysteries of Christ are figured. The Gospel is the sea in which the Hebrews were saved, the Egyptians drowned. The Gospel is the sea, wherein is the plentitude of Divine grace, wherein is the Spouse of Christ, which has been founded upon the seas, as the prophet hath said, ‘He hath founded it upon the seas.’”
Christ cries aloud, “I am the Light of the World,” for by means of the Light of the Gospel which I spread abroad, I illuminate the whole world. The Gospel, therefore, is the Light of the world, and its Sun. This is why, when it is read, candles are lighted. This was an ancient custom even in the time of Jerome, as he shows in his work against Vigilantius: “In all the Eastern churches when the Gospel is read, lights are kindled, even when the sun is shining, not for the purpose of banishing darkness, but as a mark of joy. Whence also the virgins in the parable always had their lamps burning, that under the figure of corporeal light there might be set forth the light of which we read in the Psalter, ‘Thy word, O Lord, is a light unto my feet, and a lantern unto my paths.’”
This is why there has ever been, not only by the Saints but by all Christians, wonderful reverence paid to the Gospel, wonderful love, wonderful veneration. Constantine the Great sent a book of the Gospels, adorned with gold and precious stones, to S. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. The Emperor Theodosius wrote the Gospels with his own hand, and was wont to read them a good part of the night. The Œcumenical Councils of Nicæa, Chalcedon, and Ephesus, caused a volume containing the Gospels to be placed in the midst of their house of assembly, that to it, as to the Person of Christ, they might turn, as though Christ Himself were saying to them, “Judge righteous judgment.” (S. Cyril, in Apolog.) Even the heretics, who have expunged some books of Holy Scripture from the Canon, mutilated and depraved others, have not dared to meddle with the Gospels. Even heathens have respected the Gospels. How high an opinion the Platonists had of them S. Austin relates. de Civit. Dei, 10. 29. And in his Confessions he says, that in a certain Platonic book he had found the first words of S. John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word,” but not the sentence, “The Word was made flesh.” In fine, the devils tremble at beholding the Book of the Gospels; and S. Chrysostom says, they dare not enter the place in which it is kept. (Hom. 31 in Joan.)
Christ has wrought many miracles by means of the Gospels. Hear a few out of many. Gregory of Tours relates that when a certain city was in a state of conflagration S. Gall entered the church, and prayed for a long time before the altar. He then rose and took the Book of the Gospels, and placed himself in front of the fire, which was immediately extinguished. Zonaras also, in his Life of Basil the Macedonian, relates that the Russians were converted by seeing a book of the Gospels preserved uninjured in the flames.
The Holy Gospels claim the surpassing dignity which they hold, as well on account of their subject as because of their Author. Their subject is God Himself, as God and Man. That is to say, the Gospels relate the deeds and the words of Christ the Lord, by means of which He has redeemed us, and taught both what we should believe, and what we should do, that we may arrive at eternal life. Therefore Christ in the Gospels deals with the divine precepts and counsels, with the perfection of Christian life. He speaks of the Sacraments, of faith, hope, and charity, of the Trinity, and indeed of the whole matter with which theology is conversant. You might, with S. Jerome, give this definition of the Gospels: “A Breviary and Compendium of all Theology.”
The Author, and as we might call Him, the Choragus in the Evangelical Drama, who is the chief, almost the sole actor and speaker, is Christ the Lord. “God,” says the Apostle to the Hebrews, “who at sundry times, and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son, whom He hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also He made the worlds.” Therefore not Moses, nor prophets, nor kings, but the Only-Begotten One, who from the mind of the Father hath drawn the secrets of the Divine Wisdom, and the very uncreated Wisdom itself, hath made the same known unto us in the Gospels. The very omniscient Word, I say, here speaks to us with His own mouth, and declares the mysteries kept secret from eternity, though shadowed forth by so many figures in the Law and the Prophets.
This is another way by which the Gospels vindicate for themselves the dignity which is due to them. They have been so formed by the Holy Ghost that those who are simple and unlearned should not be without profit in reading them, whilst great and lofty intellects may discover many things both difficult and obscure in which they may find exercise for their highest powers. “The Divine Word,” says S. Gregory (Prefat. in Job, c. 4), “exercises by its mysteries those who are prudent and comforts the simple, for the most part, by what appears on its surface. It has openly wherewith to nourish the little ones: it preserves in secret things whereby it may fill with admiration the minds of the lofty. It is, if I may so say, a river which is both shallow and deep: in which a lamb may wade, and an elephant may swim.” For indeed the doctrine of Christ is easy and accessible both to the lowly and the learned: it is only difficult and inaccessible to those who are proud, or slothful, or have confidence in themselves. “I give thanks unto Thee, O Father,” saith Christ, “because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father, because it hath seemed good in Thy sight.”
These and many other such like things you will clearly perceive, if you compare the Law with the Gospel. Under the Law I include the Prophets, and all the other books of the Old Testament: under the Gospel, the rest of the New Testament. The Gospels are, as it were, their base and centre. As the sun shines resplendent in the midst of the planets, and as they borrow their light from him, and circle around him, and move, as I may say, in a kind of choric dance, so is the Gospel refulgent like the sun amongst the writings of the Apostles, and imparts to them its own light and splendour. For what else are Peter, Paul, James, John, and Jude than preachers and interpreters of the Gospel? “Paul,” says S. Jerome (Epist. 61, ad Pammach.), “is the Gospel trumpet, the roaring of our lion, the flood of Christian eloquence.” Thus the Acts of the Apostles set forth Gospel practice; the Epistles of S. Paul and the other Apostles, Gospel doctrine; the Apocalypse, prophecy. For what Christ foretold concerning Elias, Antichrist, the Judgment, and the end of the world, and the signs which shall go before it, John, in the Apocalypse, relates and unfolds more at length. Christ in the Gospel is, as it were, the Supreme Lawgiver, Apostle, Evangelist, and Doctor. He likewise is the Divine Seer and Prophet.
Christ Himself is the true Author of the Gospel. For this very cause He clothed His Godhead with our flesh, that by means of it, He might dictate the Gospel with His own mouth. “For,” as S. John says, “The Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” What then is the Gospel? It is the Book of Christ, the Philosophy of Christ, the Theology of Christ; it is the most joyful message of Christ concerning redemption, and the everlasting salvation of the human race, brought by Himself from heaven, and conferred upon believers in Him. For Christ spake far more sublime and divine things by His own mouth than He spake by Moses and the Prophets.
To read, then, or to hear the Gospel, is to read or to hear the very words of the Son of God. And thus the Gospel must be listened to with the self-same reverence as if we were listening to Christ Himself. And this is what we read S. Anthony, S. Basil, S. Francis, and other saints did. “Let us hearken to the Gospel,” saith S. Austin, “as to the Lord: the Lord is above, but here, too, is the Lord, the Truth.” This is why, when the Gospel is read in church, all stand up, as venerating Christ. This custom has Apostolic sanction. Hear S. Clement (in book 2 of the Apostolic Constitutions, c. 61), “When the Gospel is read, let all the presbyters, deacons, and laity stand up, and keep perfect silence.” Isidore of Pelusium shows that the same custom should also be observed by bishops: “When the True Pastor himself approaches, by opening the adorable Gospels, then at last the bishop rises, by this signifying that the Lord Himself is the Prince of the pastoral office, and that God his Master is present.” (Lib. I Epist. 136.) Sozomen condemns the Alexandrine custom, by which, contrary to the general usage of the Church, the bishop does not rise when the Gospels are read. (Lib. 9, c. 39.) Moreover, the Eighth General Council (Act. 10. Can.) decrees that equal honour shall be paid to the Gospels as to the Cross of Christ: “We decree that the sacred image of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of all, shall be reverenced with the same honour as the book of the Holy Gospels. For like as by the words which are contained in the Book all attain to salvation, so by depicting in colours, both wise men as well as the unlearned receive profit from that which is before their eyes. For that which is in syllables are the words of Scripture, and they are preached and commended to us by pictures.”
A second reason for the superiority of the Gospel over the Law is found in the surpassing excellence of its doctrine. The doctrine of the Gospel greatly excels that which is found in the Law. The Law declares that one God is to be believed in and worshipped. The Gospel preaches of God, One in Essence, but Three in Person, who is to be loved and worshipped. “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” I allow that in the Law and the Prophets there was a foreshadowing of the mystery of the Trinity. And it was from thence that Trismegistus drew his oracular saying, “Monad begat Monad, and reflected back his warmth upon Himself.” But he neither understood nor penetrated the truth of the mystery. This, too, the Platonists followed after, but they did not attain unto it. They corrupted the truth by an error similar to Arianism, for whilst they proclaimed one chief God, they held that there were lesser and inferior gods. The prophets darkly and obscurely foretell the birth, life, cross, passion, and ascension of Christ, the mission of the Holy Ghost, the calling and conversion of all nations; but the Gospel firmly and clearly announces these things. The foreknowledge, providence, predestination, omnipotence, infinite love of God, and all His other attributes, are openly and distinctly set forth, not by the Law, but by the Gospel. “No man,” saith S. John, “hath seen God at any time: the only begotten Son who is in the Bosom of the Father, he hath declared Him.” Therefore, when Christ was made man, He descended from the bosom of His Father into the bosom of His Mother, that He might declare unto us the secrets of the Father, which were known to Himself alone. This, in truth, is “the great mystery of godliness,” which, as the Apostle says, “was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” This verily is not in the Law, but in the Gospel.
S. Anthony, as Anastasius testifies in his Life, called the Gospel “a Letter of God sent down from heaven,” teaching how we ought to journey towards heaven, how we ought to please God, and live a good and perfect life. Excellently saith S. Bernard (Serm. 1, on the Seven Loaves), “The Gospel is the mirror of truth; it flatters no one, it misleads no one; in it every one will find himself just what he is, so that he need not fear where there is no cause for fear, nor yet rejoice when he hath done evil.” S. Gregory uses the same metaphor (lib. 2 Mor. c. 1), “Sacred Scripture is placed before the eyes of the mind, as it were a mirror, that in it we may behold our inward face; in it we can behold our deformity and our beauty; there we discern how we have profited, there how far we have been from profiting.” With this S. Ambrose agrees, saying (Serm. 20 in Ps. 119), “The Gospel not only teaches the faith, it is the school of morals, the mirror of conversation.”
Let us admire the sentiment of S. Bernard, who does not hesitate to say (Serm. 1 in Sep.) that he who hears, reads, meditates upon the word of God with profit, hath a sign and a pledge of his predestination; and, that you may not be astonished, he adds the reason: “He that is of God,” saith the Truth, “heareth the words of God. Ye, therefore, hear them because ye are of God.” Thus S. Cecilia, the glory of Rome, the princess of virgins, the standard-bearer of the martyrs, always carried the Gospel of Christ in her bosom, which neither flame, nor sword, nor torments were able to wrest from her; but by it she not only won for herself the laurels of virginity and martyrdom, but instructed and prepared her betrothed, Valerian, and her brother, Tiburtius, and many more, for the same laurels; so that deservedly does the Church sing of her, “Thine handmaid, Lord, Cecilia, like unto an industrious bee, doth Thee service.”
Lastly, the Law made no Apostles, but the Gospel hath made very many. For “the word of God is quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword, reaching even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” For the Gospel has this force, that it causes him who believes in it to engage in propagating it, and so makes him a herald and preacher of it.
S. Chrysanthus, who empurpled Rome by a copious stream of his own and his relations’ blood, being converted to Christ from heathenism by reading the Gospel, afterwards converted his wife, Daria; and after that he drew men, and Daria women, without number, to faith and chastity.
S. Boniface, the Apostle of Germany, when he was propagating the faith of Christ in Germany, about the year A.D. 750, always carried about with him the sacred volume of the Gospels. Even in his martyrdom he did not let it go, but when the Frisons brandished their swords above his head he opposed this book as a sort of spiritual shield; and by a remarkable miracle, although the book was cut right in twain by a sharp sword, not a single letter was destroyed. S. Dominic, that illustrious torch of the Church, the Father of the Friars Preachers, had the Gospel of S. Matthew for his constant companion. He knew almost the whole of it by heart, and was wont to say, “Without Holy Scripture a preacher cannot exist.” Rightly does S. Gregory, upon those words of Job, “Silver has the beginnings of its own veins,” say, “Silver is the brightness of eloquence, or wisdom. The veins of Holy Scripture are as if any one should say plainly, it is necessary that he who prepares himself for the words of true preaching should derive their sources from the sacred pages, that whatsoever he speaks he should recall to the foundation of Divine authority, and make firm the edifice of his discourse upon that.” When Ven. Bede was dying, almost with his last breath he would finish his translation of S. John’s Gospel, and said to his scribe, “Take your pen, and write quickly.” Then when the last words were written, like a dying swan, he sang, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,” and most calmly breathed out his spirit to enjoy the reward of his faith and labours in the Beatific Vision of God, A.D. 731. The Emperor Charles, truly the Great, both in body and in the glory of sacred literature, as well as for his actions, a little before his death, after the coronation of his son Louis, gave himself up entirely to prayer, almsdeeds, and learning. He himself carefully revised the Four Gospels in conformity with their Greek and Syriac originals. Thus he spent his time until his last conflict. His Book of the Gospels is religiously preserved at Aix-la-Chapelle, as I myself have seen. The heretics have been imitators of these things. It is well known of one, Philip Melancthon, that he never went anywhere, never sat down, nor supped, nor dined, without having the Gospels by his side. But, leaving the sectaries, let us return to the Apostles. S. Barnabas was with S. Paul, the first Apostle of the Gentiles. When he was going forth to convert them he wrote out the Gospel of S. Matthew, and carried it about with him wherever he went. At length, dying a martyr for the Gospel in Cyprus, he desired to be buried with it, as a pledge of the heavenly resurrection promised to him. This very Gospel of S. Matthew was found upon his breast in the time of the Emperor Zeno. See his Life. The Apostle Bartholomew, as Eusebius tells us (H. E. v. 10), took with him to the Indies the Gospel of S. Matthew in Hebrew, written with his own hand. There he left it, and more than a hundred years afterwards Pantænus found it, and brought it to Alexandria. What turned Saul into Paul? The Gospel. “These were the men,” says S. Leo (Serm. 1 on SS. Peter and Paul), “by whom the Gospel shone upon thee, O Rome. They delivered to thee, as a charge to keep, that Gospel which Christ had committed unto them: they sealed it with their blood, that thou shouldst keep it pure, and deliver it, and expound it to all the other Churches as a mistress of truth. This is what Paul proclaims aloud to thee in his Epistle: ‘That I may be the minister of Christ to the Gentiles, sanctifying (Gr. ίερουργοϋντα, that is, consecrating) the Gospel of God, that the oblation of the Gentiles may be accepted and sanctified by the Holy Ghost.’” The Gospel, and the preaching and interpretation of the Gospel, is the sacrifice; the Romans and the Gentiles who believe the Gospel are the victims. These the Apostle offered to God as a most acceptable oblation, when he evangelized them. The blood of Paul was the libation by which this sacrifice was bedewed.
The same S. Paul says in his Epistle to the Ephesians, “To me, the least of all the saints, is given this grace, to preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ: and to enlighten all men, that they may see what is the dispensation of the mystery which hath been hidden from eternity in God who created all things: that the manifold wisdom of God may be made known to the principalities and powers in heavenly places through the church.”
Paul, therefore, was the doctor of angels. S. Chrysostom commenting on the passage says, he taught the principalities and powers the Gospel of Christ. They, therefore, are followers of Paul, and co-workers with him who handle and expound the Gospel, and preach it to countrymen and foreigners, to believers and infidels. These are they whom Isaiah deservedly praises, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of them that preach the Gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things.”
It remains that we should apply the doctrines of the Gospel to our own lives and those of others. For the Gospel is a mirror in which every one may behold his own face. “The Life of Christ,” says S. Bernard, “is the rule by which I ought to frame my life.” Christ is Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last. “The First,” says S. Austin, “in eternity, the Last by humility.”
Let us learn then from the Evangel to live evangelically, that is, angelically. For Christ as an Angel descended from heaven that He might teach men angelic life and doctrine, yea, that of men He might make angels, and in a certain sense, gods. Christ shall come to his temple, and purify the priesthood. They that continue in their evil ways shall be punished: but true penitents shall receive a blessing. “Behold, I” saith He by the Prophet Malachi, “send My Angel, and He shall prepare the way before My face: presently the Lord whom you seek, the angel of the testament whom you desire, shall come to His temple, even the Angel of the Covenant, whom ye delight in, saith the Lord of hosts.”
Wherefore from Him, who is the Eternal Wisdom of the Father, we must diligently ask light and the grace of His Spirit, that He who sat in the midst of the Doctors when He was about to make a commencement of the Gospel, would even now open it both to teachers and taught, that they may understand it, and fulfil their understanding of it by Christian works.
Let us say therefore again and again with S. Augustine, if not with equal, yet with similar fervour (lib. 4 de Trinit. c. 1), “In this sort of men, who have sorrow in their pilgrimage, because they long for the country, and for God the Founder of it, in this family of Thy Christ, O my God, among Thy poor I groan; give me of thy Bread to answer men, who neither hunger nor thirst after justice, but are full and abound. For their own fancy, not Thy Truth hath satisfied them, for they repel Thy Truth and kick against it, that they may fall in their own vanity. Clearly do I perceive how many figments the heart of man brings forth. And what is my heart but the heart of a man? But for this I pray to thee God of my heart that in these writings I may put forth none of those figments for solid truth, but that there may come into them whatever shall be able to come through me from the place whence the dawning of His truth breaks upon me, although I have been cast out of the sight of His eyes, and am striving to return from afar by the path which the Divine Person of His Only-Begotten One hath laid down for mankind.”
After a little he adds, “The essence of God is such, that It hath nothing mutable, neither in eternity, nor in truth, nor in will, because there there is eternal truth, and eternal love: and true charity is there, and true eternity; there is loving eternity, and loving truth.”
Open unto us, O Lord Jesus, the arcana of truth, and of Thine own true love, Thou that hast the key of David, who openest and no man shutteth, and shuttest and no man openeth, that we may know it clearly, and when we know it, may love and cherish it, and loving it, may indeed fulfil it, for Thou art our Love, Thou our Desire, our Life, and Blessedness. Amen.
OF THE NUMBER, ORDER,
AGREEMENT AND DISCREPANCIES
VERY many in the olden time wrote Gospels, and fathered them upon Apostles, giving them the names of Apostles, that they might in this manner gain a sanction for their heresies. “Thus,” says S. Jerome, “these were the authoritative books of divers heresies, published by divers authors, such as the Gospel according to the Egyptians, the Gospel of Thomas, of Matthias, of Bartholomew, of The Twelve Apostles, of Basilides, of Apelles, and others which it would be tedious to enumerate. This only is it needful to say, that certain men rose up, who without the Spirit and grace of God attempted rather to weave a tale than to compile historical truth. To these men may justly be applied the words of the Prophet, ‘Woe unto them which prophesy out of their own heart, and walk after their own spirit, who say, The Lord saith, and the Lord hath not sent them.’ Of such the Saviour also speaks in the Gospel of S. John, ‘All that ever came before Me were thieves and robbers.’” And after an interval he adds, “From all these things combined, it may be clearly seen that four Gospels only ought to be received, and that all the follies of the Apocryphal Gospels have been the utterances of dead heretics, rather than of Catholic writers.”
There are then only Four Canonical Gospels, and the Church proves them to be so by the teaching and tradition of the Apostles. For S. Peter gave his sanction to the Gospel of S. Mark, S. Paul to that of S. Luke, the Apostles unitedly to that of S. Matthew, for when they were about to go away to their several provinces they carried it with them. All the Bishops of Asia, and the rest of the faithful are witnesses to the Gospel of S. John. Origen and S. Jerome, cite the authorities for these statements. As for the Gospel according to the Hebrews, attributed to S. Matthew, although it seems to have been the same with his Gospel, it has been depraved by additions from various sources, so that it is of doubtful and uncertain authority. S. Jerome, however, translated it out of Hebrew into Latin. This is what he says in his catalogue of illustrious men, speaking of James, the Lord’s brother: “The Gospel which is called according to the Hebrews, I have lately translated into Greek and Latin. Origen frequently quotes it. It makes the following mention of James after the Lord’s Resurrection. ‘When the Lord had given a linen cloth to the priest’s servant, He went and appeared unto James. For James had sworn that he would not eat bread from the hour in which he had drank of the Lord’s chalice, until he beheld Him risen from the dead.’ And again, ‘Bring forth,’ saith the Lord, ‘bread and a table,’ adding immediately, ‘He took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave it unto James the Just, and saith unto him, My Brother, eat thy bread, for the Son of Man hath arisen from among them that slept.’”
In the same work, Jerome, speaking of S. Ignatius says, “Ignatius wrote an Epistle to the Smyrnæans, in which he quotes a passage from the Gospel which has been recently translated by me, upon the Person of Christ, saying, ‘I indeed, even after His Resurrection, have seen Him in the flesh, and I believe that He is. And when He came unto Peter, and unto them which were with Peter, He saith unto them, Behold Me, and touch Me, for I am not an incorporeal spirit. And immediately they touched Him, and believed.’” Origen moreover (tom. 2 in Joan.) cites from the same Gospel, “Christ hath said, Presently My Mother, the Holy Ghost, received Me, and carried Me by one of My hairs to Mount Tabor.” This sentence, unless it be construed favourably, seems to contain the Gnostic heresy of the Valentinians, who asserted that the Holy Ghost was the Mother of Christ.
Origen, however, defends it thus, that the Holy Ghost is not called the Mother of Christ by generation, but by imitation, forasmuch as He imitated His Father, and conformed Himself to His will. This is but a poor defence however. Bede also quotes this Gospel, and asserts that it was allowed by the ancients. But however this may be, it is certain that it is not canonical, and has not the authority of Holy Scripture.
This Gospel according to the Hebrews was also called the Gospel of the Nazarenes, because the Nazarenes made use of it. Hear S. Jerome (in c. 12 Matth. v. 13), where he is speaking of Christ healing the withered hand: “In the Gospel used by the Nazarenes and the Ebionites, which I have recently translated out of Hebrew into Greek, and which is considered by many an authentic work of Matthew, the man who had the withered hand is said to have been a mason. These are the words in which he cried for help. There was a certain mason who gained his living by the use of his hands, who cried out unto Him and said, ‘I pray Thee, Jesus, that Thou wouldest restore me to soundness, that I may not disgracefully beg my bread.’”
The Nazarenes were Jews who were converted to Christ, who, because they kept the law of Moses together with the Gospel, were cast out of the Church. The Hebrew Gospel of S. Matthew, which they kept at first genuine and untampered with, they seem to have subsequently corrupted by certain additions, in the same way that the Ebionites and Carpocratians did.
You may ask why there are precisely four Evangelists and four Gospels, neither more nor less. 1. S. Augustine (lib. I de Consens. Evang. c. 2) answers, because there are four quarters of the world in which the Gospel must be preached.
2. “These four are, as it were, the four pillars of the Church, on which as on a square stone, the sacred structure of the faith is built.” So says S. Gregory (lib. I, Epist. 24).
3. Because the number four is solid and square. Therefore it denotes the solidity and perfection of the Gospels. Whence Philo (lib. de Mundi Opificio) says, “The number four first shows the nature of a solid: for a point is reckoned in unity, a line by duality; when breadth is added, superficies pertains to the number three; for surface to become a solid body it lacks one thing; when this is added, namely height, we have the number four.” Aristotle calls a perfect man foursquare.
4. Others assign as the reason, that there are just so many letters in the Hebrew name of God, which is called the Tetragrammaton, representing the four primary attributes of God, which are unfolded in the Gospels. Others say, because there were four rivers in Paradise. But these are all mystical and symbolical reasons.
5. The literal and real reason is because, as there are four Cherubim in the court of Heaven, as it were the princes and wise ones of God, so in the Church on earth there are four Evangelists, as it were, princes and cherubim of Christ. This is plain from the first chapter of Ezekiel, where he represents these four Cherubim with four faces, as denoting the four attributes of God. Add that two of the Evangelists, in the beginning of their Gospels, speak of the two natures of Christ—Matthew of His human, John of His divine nature. The other two speak of the two-fold dignity of Christ—Mark of His royal, Luke of His sacerdotal dignity. So Ruperti on the first chapter of Ezekiel. “For Christ was a man by being born, a calf by dying, a lion by rising again, an eagle by ascending,” says S. Jerome. That cherubic chariot then is the Gospel chariot, drawn, as it were, by four horses, that is to say, the four Evangelists, making the circuit of the world. This application of Ezekiel’s vision of the four Cherubim to signify the four Evangelists is given by S. Jerome, Athanasius, Austin, Irenæus, Gregory, Ambrose, Bede, and the rest of the Fathers by a unanimous consensus.
Listen to S. Jerome (Epist. 103, ad Paulinum), “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the Lord’s chariot, the true cherubim, which means the multitude of knowledge, whose bodies were all full of eyes, who gave forth sparks, ran to and fro like lightnings, had straight feet, and who were borne aloft; who had their backs covered with wings, and who flew in all directions. They each take hold of one another, they are mutually intertwined, they revolve as a wheel within a wheel, and they proceed whithersoever the breathing of the Holy Spirit leadeth them.”
Now, the cherubim of Ezekiel had four faces and four forms, namely, of a lion, a man, a calf, and an eagle. S. John, in the Apocalypse (chap. iv.), calls them four living creatures. “The first living creature,” he says, “was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, and the third living creature, having the face, as it were, of a man, and the fourth living creature was like an eagle flying.”
The lion denotes S. Mark, whose face, i.e., the beginning of his Gospel, is the cry and the roar of John the Baptist in the wilderness, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand:” the calf denotes S. Luke, who commences his Gospel with the ancient priesthood, whose victim was a calf. The man denotes S. Matthew, who begins with the human genealogy of Christ. The eagle denotes S. John, who, soaring aloft from earth to heaven, balances himself like an eagle, and thunders forth, as it were, that Divine exordium, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Deservedly does S. Denis the Areopagite, in his Epistle to the same John, call him the sun of the Gospel, and his Gospel itself the memory and the renewal of that Theology, which he drew from the Lord, as he lay upon His breast, and left to be beheld in his Gospel by those who came after, like a ray of the sun.
Listen to S. Jerome in his Preface to S. Matthew: “First of all is Matthew the publican, surnamed Levi, who published a Gospel in Judæa in the Hebrew language, chiefly for the sake of those from among the Jews who had believed in Jesus, but who still observed the shadow of the Old Law, after the truth of the Gospel had come in its place. The second is Mark, the interpreter of the Apostle Peter, and first Bishop of the Church of Alexandria, who had not indeed himself seen the Lord, the Saviour; but related the things which he had heard his master preach, rather according to the truth of what was done, than the order. The third is Luke the Physician, a Syrian by nation, an Antiochene, whose praise is in the Gospel. He was a disciple of the Apostle Paul; and composed his work in the parts of Achaia and Bœotia. He aimed somewhat loftily; and as he himself confesses in his Preface, narrated what he had heard rather than what he had seen. The last is John, the Apostle and Evangelist, who loved Jesus very greatly, and who, lying upon the Lord’s bosom, drank of the very purest streams of doctrine, and who alone was privileged to hear from the Cross, ‘Behold thy Mother.’”
These four so appropriately wrote the words and deeds of Christ, that they seem to make a kind of musical harmony of four chords; for what each one writes is different in style from the others, but agrees with them in meaning and in facts. What one is silent about, another supplies: what one gives concisely, another relates more at large: what one obscurely hints at, another gives at length. As S. Augustine says, “Although each seems to have preserved his own order in writing, yet they are not found to have written as though any one were ignorant of what had been said by him who preceded; but as each was inspired, he added the not superfluous co-operation of his own labour.”
Lastly, the discrepancies of the Evangelists are the greatest possible testimony to their truthfulness. As S. Chrysostom says in his Preface to S. Matthew, “If altogether and in every respect they exactly corresponded, and with the utmost precision with respect to times and places were in perfect verbal agreement, there is not one of our enemies but would believe, that they were engaged in a common design to deceive, and that they had framed the Gospels by human understanding, for they would not judge that this supposed harmony arose from simple sincerity, but was the result of contrivance.” And again, he says, “If any one whatsoever had related everything, the others would have been superfluous: or if again, on the other hand, each had written nothing which was found in the others, there could have been no proof of their agreement. Wherefore they have written many things in common, and yet each hath related something specially and peculiarly his own. And thus they have escaped the charge of writing for writing’s sake, merely to add to the number of the Gospels, as well as the opposite danger of bringing discredit upon everything, by each giving entirely different events.”
ON THE VERSIONS
THE Syriac version of the Gospels was made, as it would seem, from the Greek, and is extant in the royal Bibles. The Arabic version was printed at Rome with a translation, at the Medici printing press, A.D. 1591. I frequently cite both these versions.
I have also found in the Vatican Library at Rome the Coptic, or Egyptian version of the Gospels, the Ethiopian, and the Persian, all very ancient. For the Gospel was brought into Egypt soon after Christ by S. Mark, into Ethiopia by S. Matthew, into Persia by S. Simon and S. Jude. And so the faith of the Gospel flourished in those regions. In them there were swarms of holy monks and brave martyrs. A Persian version was transmitted by Jerome Xavier, the Jesuit, a cousin of S. Francis Xavier, from the city of Arga, in the territory of the King of Mogor, as a precious gift, and a remarkable monument of antiquity, to the Collegium Romanum, where I have collated it. This Codex was transcribed from the original in the Mahometan year 730 of the Hegira, which corresponds to A.D. 1381. The original itself was very much more ancient, for which reason the version contains a great number of Persian words differing from modern Persian. Of all these versions I propose to make use, though in moderation, and cum grano. For they have not the authority of the Greek and Latin Gospels; but they confirm, and to some extent illustrate them. Moreover there are at Rome Ethiopians, or Abyssinians, whose youthful priests are in the habit of coming to the Collegium Romanum. In Rome too there are those who are skilled in other tongues, for the world is in that city. The various Gospels have been interpreted to me by men of the several nations and languages in which they are written, especially by the Reverend Father Athanasius Kincher of our Society, a man well acquainted with the Oriental languages, as may be seen by the Lexicon which he has lately published.
It is said that S. Matthew preached in hither Ethiopia, now called Sennaar, where there are black Ethiopians. He is said to have died in the city of Luah, where there are still standing churches dedicated to him. The rest of Ethiopia, or Abyssinia, attributes its reception of the Gospels and the rest of Holy Scripture, together with the faith of Christ to a certain Ethiopian monk, named Abba Salama, or the father of peace. He was brought up amongst the Eastern Arabs, from whom he derived his knowledge of Christianity and the Holy Scriptures, which he afterwards communicated to the whole of Ethiopia, for which reason he is called its apostle. The Ethiopic version agrees with the Arabic, from which it was derived.
Very many, both in ancient and modern times, have written commentaries on the Gospels. Not to multiply citations, let us quote what S. Jerome says in his preface to S. Matthew: “I confess that I have read many years ago twenty-five volumes of Origen upon S. Matthew, and as many volumes of Homilies. I have read also the commentaries of Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, of Hippolytus the Martyr, and of Theodore of Heraclea, of Apollinarius of Laodicæa, and Didymus of Alexandria. Of Latin commentators, I have read the works of Hilary, Victorinus, and Fortunatus, from whom, even though little be taken, something worthy of remembrance might be written down.”
Of recent commentators the number is all but infinite. Their superabundance makes it difficult for the reader to know which to choose, so that he might say with Niobe of old, “Abundance has made me poor.”
For myself, I have written the following commentaries, partly at Louvain, A.D. 1600, partly when I was teaching and lecturing publicly on the Gospels at Rome. I am now an old man, and have passed nearly all my life in learning in the school of the Holy Scriptures. In a science so vast, so sublime and difficult, no one ought to be a teacher and doctor until he has spent a long time in studying as a disciple of the doctors.
Acts of the Apostles