< These books were designed to be read and understood, by persons of the humblest capacity, as well as by those of the most exalted genius. Readers of the most limited education, as well as those of the most liberal attainments, were equally embraced in the views of the writers. If particular attention was paid to any class of readers, it was doubtless to the poor, who have notthe means of a refined education. One of the most striking evidences of the divine mission of the Saviour was, that, to the POOR, his glad tidings were announced. A revelation not adapted to them, forfeits all claims to a divine original.
In laying down some general principles or rules, for reading intelligibly the following narratives, regard must be had to all sorts of readers--the young as well as the old; the illiterate as well as the learned; and also some attention must be paid to the difficulties, that lie in the way of a rational and profitable perusal of them.
IN the first place, then, there is no opinion or notion, which is more prejudicial to an intimate acquaintancewith these writings, than that of the Egyptian priests, introduced into the first theological school at Alexandria, and carried throughout christendom--viz. "That the words of scripture have a mystical, spiritual, theological, or some other than a literal meaning; and that the same rules of interpretation are not to be applied to the inspired writings, which are applied to human compositions:" than which, no opinion is more absurd andpernicious. If this notion were correct, all efforts to understand this book must be in vain, until God sends us an interpreter, who can resolve those enigmas and mystic words of tehological import, and give us the plain meaning, of what the Apostles and Evangelists wrote.
Thbe reader will please to consider that, when God spoke to man, he adopted the languageof man. To the fathers of the Jewish nation he spoke in their mother tongue. By his Son, and his Son by the Apostles, spoke to every nation in its own language. When he spoke to any nation, he uniformly adopted the words of that nation, in expressing his will to it. And that he used their words in the commonly received sense, needs no other proof than this, that if he had not done so, instead of enlightening them in the knowledge of his will, he would have deceived and confounded them: than which, no hypotehsis is more impious. For example, were God to speak to us in English, and select from our vocabularly the words death, punishment, perpetual, and wicked; were he to use the last term as we use it, and annex to the others a signification, different from that we affix to them--such as to mean life by the term death, happiness by the term punishment, and a limited time by the word perpetual; and, without apprising us of such a change in their meaning, say, "Perpetual death shall be in the punishment of the wicked," what a deception would he practise upon us! His words,in our acceptation, would convey a tremendous thought; but, in his reserved sense, would mean no more than, "A limited life shall be the happiness of the wicked."
Once more on this topic. As nothing can be said to be revealed or made known, by words which are not perfectly intelligible, so we findthe sacred writers so conscious of this, that when they used any word, which was not familiar to the readers whom they addressed, they immediately add, "Which being interpreted, signifies." If, then, those writers were accusomted to explainany word not familiar to their readres, does it not undeniably follow, that they suposed every word or allusion, not so explained, sufficiently plain already?
And again, would not the same benevolence and respect to the capacity and understanding of their readers, which induced them to explain some terms of very subordinate importance, such as "borban," "talitha cumi," "Aceldama," "Golgotha," &c. &c. have caused them to explain words of infinitely more importance, such as, "repentane," "faith," "hope," "love," "justify," "covenant," "baptism," "ambasssador," "Son of God," "eternal life," "everlasting punishment," &c. if they had not supposed such terms sufficiently plain in the common usage, and quite intelligible to all their readrs? From these plain facts and arguments, we deduce the following rule or direction to all those, who, under the guidance of Heven, desire to understand these sacred books:--You are to understand the words and sentences inthese narratives, (and, indeed, in all the apostolic writings) by the application of all those rules, through which ou arrive at the meaning of any other book or writing, of the same antiquity.
Next to a regard to the commonly received sense of the words in these writings, nothing contributes more to the clear and certain understanding of them, than a knowledge of the design of the respective writers of each paort of this volume. In one respect, they all may be said to have but one design. Taking the ultimate happiness of man as the grand design of all revelation, it must be granted, that all the inspired writers had this object in view, in all that they wrote. It is, however, capable of the clearest proof; and, indeed, it is universally admitted, that every writer who has written different parts of this book, had a specific design in each separate communication. For in the prosectuion of one grand design, there are often a thousand items, distinct from each other, to accomplish; each of which may be the design of one particular effort. Now, it requires not a moment's reflection, to see that Paul had one design in writing to Timothy, another in writing to Philemon, and another in writing to the congregation in Rome.
It is granted by all critics, that when all grammatical rules fail to settle the meaning of any ambiguous word or sentence, a knowledge of the design of the writer or speaker will do it. Even when a writer's terms are badly selected, or improperly used, a knowledge of this design makes his meaning plain. Daily experience must convince us that we can more easily solve difficulties, and correct mistakes in composition, by a knowledge of the design of the writer, than by any other means we possess. Indeed, the more weighty and important criticisms upon verbal inaccuracies, are predicated upon a knowledge of the design of the writer or speaker. If, then a suitable regard be paid to the design of any speaker or writer, how ambiguous and incorrect soever his words may be, we shall seldom, if ever, fail in understanding him. For example--little children, when they first begin to speak, have but few terms at command, and necessarily apply them very inaccurately; yet their nurses and attendants find little or no difficulty in understanding them. In regarding what they design to communicate, their language becomes as definite and precise, as that of the Grecian or Roman orator.
To those who inquire, how we are always to find out the design of a writer, we would just observe, that his design becomes apparent either from an express avowal of it, or from attention to a variety of circumstances connected with his writing, or both. But this will in the sequel become suficiently plain. Indeed, many readers appear to discover the design of a writer much sooner, than they do the meaning or propriety of what he says.
But to bring these general hints to bear upon our subject, we must request the attention of our readers to the design of the narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In this way, we think, we can most profitably introduce them to the acquaintance of the youth, who may peruse them.
Had we no means of ascertaining the design of these four historians, other than mere conjecture, predicated on circumstances, we would rationally conclude, that the design in committting to writing, their testimony concerning Jesus of Nazareth, was the same as induced them to deliver it orally; only with this difference, that in writing they designed to perpetuate, in a more permanent form, what must soon be corrupted and forgotten, if only spoken and not written; and that the conviction of unbelievers, and the confirmation of disciples in the truth of one incomparable fact, was the grand design of their testimony, whether verbal or written. This illustrious fact is, that Jesus the Nazarene is the Son of God, the Saviour of men. But we are not, in this instance, dependent on conjecture. We are expressly told by one of the historians, that his design in writing was, that through his written testimony, the reader "might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing this he might have life through his name." Another of those sacred historians says, that his design in writing was, that a certain illustrious personage, a christian disciple, to whom he inscribed his narrative, "might know the certainty of those things wherein he had been instructed." This narrative was directly inscribed to this personage, and through him made public property, and consequently was designed to produce the same effects in all persons in similar circumstances; and, therefore, was as well designed to produce faither where it was not, as to confirm it where it already exists. But, in brief, whatever was the grand design of one of these historians, was the design of them all; for they all were employed to bear testimony to the same person; and in doing this, they were equally guided by one and th same Spirit.
But whence all the differences and varieties in their narratives? This, too, the design of each goes very far to explain. But was not the design of one, the design of all? True, it was the design of them all to prove one fact; but it was not to the same identical persons: and all men are not to be convinced by the same arguments. As this is a point of vast importance, in every way in which it can be viewed, permit me to be more particular in invoking attention to it.
As all nations have their own peculiarities, and all people their own ways of thinking, reasoning, and expressing themselves; these varieties in their circumstances, require a corresponding variety in addressing them upon all subjects; though the things spoken be substantially the same, and th design of the speaker precisely the same. Now, in writing as well as in speaking, the same persons vary their communications according to the times, places, and circumstances in which they speak or write. For example, though Paul proclaimed the same gospel at all times and in all places, he does not always exhibit it in the same words, nor accompanied with the same evidences, arguments, or reasons. Thus, in publishing the same gospel to the Lycaonians, the Athenians, the Antiochians, the Corinthians, he is governed by all the prejudices, views, feelings, and cicumstances of his auditors; and adapts the style, the facts, arguments, and evidences, to the capacities, views, and circumstances of his hearers. While he publishes the same glad tidings to them all, he varies in many respects upon all these occasions. This was absolutely necessary to his success, and is a most irrefragable proof of the sincerity and honesty of the man, and greatly adds to the credibility of his testimony. Now, for the same reaons that Pual differs from himself, or varies in his way of speaking the gospel in different places, he would have observed the same varieties in writing to the same people. For he never spoke at random in publishing the glad tidings; and what he spoke, was as deliberate as what he wrote. For the same reasons, therefore, had any one of the writrs of these four histories, written them all to the different persons, at the different times, and in the different places where they were at first published, there is every reason to believe that they would have been as different from each other as they are: and making a reasonable allowance for the peculiarities of each writer, that they would have been the same as they now are. Many reasons could be offered for this opinion, but we shall only submit one proof or argument in favor of it, which is indeed done, when one single fact is stated--viz. Luke, in his Acts of the Apostles, three times gives an account of Paul's conversion and special call to the apostleship, and these three differ as much from each other, as Matthew, Mark, and John differ in their narratives concerning Jesus of Nazareth. But there is just the same reason and necessity for, and the same propriety in, the varieties which are found in these four histories, as there was for Paul to speak the same gospel in a different way, with different arguments, facts, and evidences, in th different places in which he published it. Suppose Matthew Lewi to have written a narrative for the convinction of th epeople at Rome, one for the Jews and Greeks in Greece, and one for the Asiatics in general, at different periods within the lapse of from twenty to thirty years; would it not have been as fiting for him to have been as diverse in his statements, as Paul was in his preachings in Damascus, Lycaonia, Athens, and Rome?
It was, for example, of indispensalbe importance that Matthew Levi, when writing for the Jews in Judea, at the time in which he wrote, should trace the lineage of Jesus of Nazareth up to David and Abraham; but of no consequence to the people of Rome, for whom John Mark wrote, that he whould do it att he time he published his testimony. This, and other differences betwen Paul in Damascus, and Paul in Athens. In a Jewish synagogue in Damascus, the Jewish Prophets must be circumstantially adduced; but before the Areopagus in the city of Athens, Aretas, a Grecian poet, was better evidence than Isaiah or Daniel--better adapted to the audience, and to the design of the speaker.
To return to the design of thse four testimonies. The immediate design of these writings to convince men that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; and the ultimate design of them is to put men in possession of life! Matthew's design was, in the first instance, to convince the Jews in Judea--Mark's design was to convince the Italians or Romans--Luke's design was to convince the Grecians--and John's design was to convince the Asiatics in general of this fact; and, if you please, through these finally all nations. Now, as the Saviour did not exhibit all the evidence of his mission in any one town, village, or city, or to any one people, it was quite compatible with his example, and with all circumstances, that none of his ambassadors should attempt to lay all the evidences before any one people, whether they preached as Paul, in all nations; or wrote, as these writers did, for the conviction of different nations and people.
Now, to bring all these remarks to bear upon a rational and profitable, art of reading these memoirs, we shall, for example, take the testimony of Matthew Levi, and show how a knowledge of his design illuminates every page, and contributes to clear and comprehensive views of that religion, in the accomplishment of which he was an active and honored agent. Let the reader suppose that he was possessed of all the facts and documents with which Matthew was furnished, and that he designed to address his countrymen, the Jews, in order to convince them that Jesus of Nazareth, who had, at the time of his writing, finished his earthly career, was that Messiah, the Son of God, which God had long and often promised, and they had expected. That he might write with the most effect, he would take into view, the circumstance of the Jews at the time of writing. He would place before him their different sects and prejudices, the popular errors and the popular truths of the time; and being fully acquainted with these, he would select out of the information with which he was furnished, such facts and documents as would suit all the circumstances of the case. Being aware that the whole nation expected a prince and deliverer to arise from among them, and from the house of King David, he would conclude, that unless he could satisfactorily prove that this Jesus was legitimately descended from Abraham through David, all further attempts to convince his countrymen would be in vain. For this purpose, then, he would apply to the Register's office, for a copy of the roll of the lineage of the house of David, well atested; and from this, trace Jesus to David; and thus prove, that in as far as pedigree was concerned, this person had the most legitimte claim upon their faith, as being unquestionably, from the most public and well-attsted documents, a descendant of King David. In the next place he would remember, that not only his descent from David, but many circumstances of his nativity and infancy, had been pointed out by the Prophets of his nation; and that the people of his time expected these to be fulfilled in the Messiah. He would, therefore, introduce those circumstances which had been foretold--such as the character of his mother, the place of his nativity, the slaughter of the infants in Ramah, his flight into Egypt, his being recalled, his being brought up in Nazareth, and the hisotry of that Elijah that was to come before him. Thus he would adduce the testimonies of Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Malachi, as all concurring to him.
Having, then, introduced him under all these favorable circumstances, and fiarly brought him before his readers, accompanied with every attestation which either their own expectations or the sayings of their Prophets had made necessary; his next effort would be to furnish such evidences as their expected Elijah presented in his behalf, and such unexpected attestations as his Father from heaven, and the Holy Spirit had ggiven at his first manifestation to Israel. Then he would give a specimen of his own character, deduced from what he said and what he did, that they might judge whether there was any thing in his doctrine or deeds incompatible with his pretensions. In selecting his own declarations, he wou.d prefer those of the greatest notoriety, such as his public discourses: and of his miracles, he would adduce not only those of the most splendid character, but those which were performed in the presence of the largest and most respectable assemblies.
He would occasionally, as opportunity served, state the success attendant on his labors, mention the names of his principal followers, and introduce as early as poossible to the notice of his readers, those prominent characters, who afterwards occupied so conspicuous a place in the triumphs of his cause. He would sometimes record such incidents in their history as would unfold their true character, and serve to give them credit with the people. He would always introduce the ancient predictios that bore upon him or them, and thus prsent a chain of evidence addressed to all that is in man, and to the pedculari temper and feelings of his countrymen. For this purpose, pains would be taken to show how he acted in all sorts of company--amongst friends and foes; and still having regard to the prejudices and errors of the times, such occurrences as would have a tendency to correct these mistakes would be minutely detailed. Combining brevity and great comprehension with simplicity and perspicuity, tracing every prominent incident from his birth to his death, his resurrection and ascension into heaven; he would thus produce such a phalanx of evidence, as would leave without excuse, every man who had read the ancient oracles, or only heard the comments of the public instructers of the people.
Such, I say, would be the general outlines of the course which reason would suggest to a person, whose design would be to convince a people, circumstanced as the Jews were, at the tim Matthew published his testimony in Judea; and such, substantially, is the course that Matthew has adopted and pursued.
Now, as the design of a writer is his own guide in the selection and arrangement of his materials, arguments, and evidences; so it is the only infallible guide, when known, to the interpretation of what he has written. A regard to the grand design of the whole, and to the particular design of each item in the narrative, will do more to explain to us the meaning of words, or what is called "the doctrines" of scripture.
Were a person to write at a great distance from Judea, as John did, where the people knew little or nothing of the Jewish Prophets, or of the Jewish customs, he would not think of troubling them with a roll of lineage about his pedigree, nor with many quotations from ancient Prophets, except to let them know that he had been the subject of ancient prophecy, or to mention a few instances to show that these prophecies had been most exactly fulfilled in him. He would inroduce John the Harbinger, merely as "a man sent from God." If he spoke of the people of Canaan, he would simply call them Jews. If he introduced any Hebrew names, such as Rabbi or Messiah, he would interpret them. If any of the sacred institutions of the Jew's religion, such as the Passover, was introduced, he would call it a feast of the Jews. If he referred to any of the usual customs of the Jews, he would explain them, such as the Jewish manner of purifying. If he spoke of places in that country, he would give a geographical description of them, such as Bethany upon the Jordan. If he alluded to the sectarian feelings of this people, he would described to what extent they were carried, by informing his readers that the Jews have no intercourse with the Samaritans. Nay, he would adopt the style of the East, as far as compatible with a lucid statement of facts; and as light was a favorite topic of the Asiatics, he would, under this similitude, introduce to their consideration Jesus as "the light of the world." In affording them the evidences of the mission of this wonderful personage, knowing that they would argue much from the reception which Jesus met with at home in his own country, he would be particular in narrating the miracles wrought in, and near to, the metropolis; and the different arguments and debates to which they gve rise; and as they would have been more likely to have heard his fame from the people that visited Jerusalem at the great annual festivals and convocations, he would more minutely detail what happened on those occasions. Such would be some of his peculiarities in addressing a people so great strangers to the Jewish history.
With similar varieties both Luke and Mark are distinguished, but for the same reasons, and subordinate to the same ends; and are just as easily understood as those of Matthew and John, when all the preceding considerations are attended to.
The Christian, who sincerely desires to understand these narratives, will not only most unfeignedly present his supplicatiosn and prayers to him who gives his Holy Spirit to them that ask him; but he will exercise those faculties of understanding which God has given him, and to which he has adapted all his communicatiosn, since man became a transgressor. He will apply the same rules of interpretation to these compositions, which he would apply to any other writings of the same antiquity. He will consider the terms, not otherwise explaind by the writers, as conveying the same ideas which they are wont to convey in common acceptation. He will always keep the design of the wrtier before his mind: and for this purpose he will attend to all circumstances requisite to ascertaining his design--such as the character of the writer himself, the circumstances of the people whom he addressed, or amongst whom he published his writings, their peculiar prejudices, views, and feelins at the time of his writing to or for them; his own most explicit avowals with regard to his motives and intentions in making any communciatiosn to them. All these things will be attended to, and the writings examined in the natural order in which they are presented; noting every allusion and incident with the greatest circumspection, whether it regard time, place, or character. But above all, the most prominent object which the writer has in view, will be the most prominent in the consdieration of a rational reader of his writings. And when difficulties occur, not to be satisfactorily solved by the mere import of the words, that meaning which best accords with the design of the whole writing, or with the particular passage, will be preferred.
But, as yet, we have not called the attention of the reader to the ultimate design of these narratives. We have, indeed, noticed that their immediate design is to convince the reader, that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God--and that this object is subordinate to another design, viz. that THE READER MIGHT, THROUGH THIS CONVICTION, ENJOY EVERLASTING LIFE.
Reader! This is the glorious end of these sacred histories. On the following pages, is inscribed the most astonishing narrative ever read; th sublimest and the simplest story ever told. But this is not all. It is designed to accomplish an object superlatively grand, transcending--in degress inexpressible--the most magnificent scheme that crated intelligence ever conceived. To convert a race of polluted, miserable, and dying mortals, into pure, happy,and glorious immortals; to convert the gates of death, into the gates of immortality; to make the pathway to rottenness and corruption, a high road to deathless vigor, and incorruptible glory; to make the grave, the vestibule, the antechamber, to a "house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens;" to make the dying groans of sin worn nature, a prelude to ecstacies unalloyed. Yes, this is the benevolent and glorious design of thse Testimonies. Books, written with such a design, with a design to purify, elevate, adn glorify the debased and degraded children of men; to prepare, furnish, and adorn them for the society of principalities and powers, for the society of their God and King, in a world of perfect bliss; most assuredly, come with a divine character to man. Their claims on the attention and examination of those to whom they are prsented, most certainly are paramount to all others. And the bare hypothesis, to say nothing of the moral certainty, that they came from God, with such a design, is quite enough, methinks, to woo our whole rational nature, to constrain all our moral powers, to test their high pretensions to a character so philanthropic and divine.
On such a theme, who would not wish to be eloquent! But how can we equal in style, a subject, which, when but faintly, and in prospective, viewed, exhausted the sublimest strains of heaven-taught prophets, and of poets, fired with God's own inspiration--whose hallowed lips tasted not the fabled springs of Pagan muses, but the fountain of living waters, springing from eternal love! Yet, even thse failed to lisp its praise. Nay, the brightest seraph that burns in heavenly light, failes in his best effort; and, in profound thought, pores upon the marvellous theme. The compassion of the eternal God, the benevolence and philanthropy of the Father of the whole family in heven and in earth, towards us, the fallen children of his love, has transcended the loftiest grasp of the highest intelligence, and has made to falter, the most expressive tongue, in all the ranks of heavenly powers. In all the rapturous lights of these morning stars of creation, in all the ecstatic acclamations of these elder Sons of God, the theme has not been reached; and though they have turned their harps a thousand times, and swelled their voices, in full chorus in countless efforts, yet the theme is still unequalled; and, as it were, untouched. Vain, then, would be the attempt, and fruitless every effort, to express, in corresponding terms, a subject so divine. Indeed, we have no language, we have not been taught an alphabet, adapted to such a theme.--
"Come, then, expressive silence, must its praise!"
It has been often noticed, that the grand laws of the natural world, the fundamental principles of the philosophy of nature, are few and simple; that all sciences, predicated upon God's works, are reducible to a few leading or general principels. The same may be said of the grandest of all systems, of the noblest of all sciences--God's own system of virtue, and his own science of happiness.
All the law and the prophets were founded upon two general principles, according to the reasoning of the Author of the Christian religion. In the estimation of the same person, the whole Christian religion is based upon one fact. But this fact, is of such an astonishing nature, that it affects both heaven and earth. Its meaning is every thing that regulates, or, it is the very principle, upon whichis founded the moral government of the world. It affects the government of God over all men, and the cheeful and acceptable allegiance of any part of them. It is to the moral system, and to the moral empire, every thing that the Sun is to the solar system, and to the globe which we inhabit. It is the centre, around which, all pure and gracious affections in human hearts, revolve; and it is th source of light and life, to a benighted and dying world. It attracts to itself every happy eye in the universe; and draws to itself every pious emotion in every human breast. The eyes of all saints, in all lands, are gladdened by its light; and the hearts of all, are cheered and warmed by its vivifying powers. That the Christian religion should be based upon such a fact, is every way worthy of its Author; and exhibits it, to the rational mind, as altogether glorious and divine.
When one question of fact is answered in the affirmative, the way to happiness is laid open; and all doubts on the nature of true piety and humanity, are dissipated. The question is one, which the following histories alone can answer. The fact is a historic one, and this question is of the same nature. It is this--Was Jesus the Nazarene, the Son and Spostle of God? This question is capable of being converted into various forms, such as --Are the subsequent narratives true? Did Jesus actually and literally rise from the dead, after being crucified and interred? Did he ascend into heven, in the presence of his disciples? Is he constituted the Judge of the living and the dead? Or, Was he an imposter, and a deceiver of men? It may be proposed in many a form; but it is still a unit, and amounts to this--Is Jesus the Nazarene, the Son of God, the Apostle of the Father, the Saviour of men? When this question is answered in the affirmative, our duty, our salvation, and our happiness, are ascertained and determined.
Although the subsequnet writings of the Apostles, add an immense weight of evidence to that afforded by these histories; still, the fact on which the whole system is built, is exhibited and attested in the followin narratives; and from these, primarily, if not exclusively, its truth and certainty must be decided.
Any hints, therefore, which may arrest the attention of the youthful reader, and direct his inquiries in a fair and impartial examination of these witnesses, appear to us of primary importance. For, if these histories are not understood and believed, there is no enjoyment of the glad tidings which they announce--Philanthropy cannot exhibit itself to so much advantage, on the theatre of this life, as in calling the attention, and in directing the pursuits of the young and the thoughtless, in the acquisition of, what may be emphatically called, the true knowledge.
In addition to the remarks on this subject, found in our preface to the four following narratives, we will subjoin a few important hints, derived from various sources, which we cannot, at this time, enumerate. These are designed to aid the youth, who are desirous of understanding the folllowing testimonies, in their minute and diligent researches into thse mines of salvation.
1. Not one of these four historians, wrote with any design of improving upon the others, of detailing the things omitted by them, or of supplying any defects, which he observed in their statements.
From this it would follow, that none of these writers had any concern or thought, when writing, how his testimony would correspond with any other, or how it might be viewed, as an improvement upon it. We know that this is not generally noticed, and that many "harmonies," and "Sketchs of the Life of Jesus," taken from these narratives, are founded upon the suppostion, that each subsequent history was written, with some design to supply the defects of the preceding. But, amongst the argumetns which support the above position, one is chief; and, in our judgment, alone sufficient to make it manifest to all. For example--Let it be supposed, that Luke or John wrote with a design to supply certain omissions in Matthew, to make some improvement upon his testimony ; how will such a suppostion affect the character of Matthew, as an Apostle, or the Spirit by which he wrote? The Evangelists, Mark and Luke, on this hypothesis, appear as correctors, or improvers, upon an Apostle!! But John avows his own design in writing, and this settles the point with regard to him. Nor can it be inferred from Luke's own preface, that he had ever seen the writings of Matthew or Mark. He speaks of many attempts that had been made to write these memoirs, but there is not the least ground to imagine, that he ever alludes to any of those that we now have.
The above hint is of much importance, on many accounts; but we must leave it, unaccompanied with any illustration or application, to the use and appropriation of the reader.
II. Not one of these historians relates all that he knew of Jesus, nor do they all relate as much as any one of them could have related concerning him. In proof of this, see John, chapter xxi. This was not their object. They do, indeed, give a fair specimen of his doctrine, and of the evidence and authority which accompanied it.
In order to explain some facts, which are partially related by one, more fully by another, differently by another, and not at all by some of them; it will be necessary to remember, that they all omit some things, to which some of them refer; and that allusions are found in one, to facts which he omits to record, but which are recorded in another. (As before said, it cannot be proved, that any one of them had seen the testimony of any other, at the time he wrote his own.) An instance or two must suffice. Three of the historians mention, that Chorazin is addressed by the Saviour, as having been the theatre on which many and stupendous miracles were wrought; such as would have converted Tyre and Sidon; and yet, not one of the four witnesses so much as says, that Jesus was ever there, much less exhibits one of these miracles. Again, we find allusiosn to a form of prayer which John taught his disciples; yet none of these writrs record it. None of them tells us, that John, the Immerser's father, was struck deaf as well as dumb; and yet the fact is alluded to, and gathered from these words--"They made signs to Zacharias how he would have his son named."
In other parts of the New Testament, certain facts and occurrences in the life of Jesus, are related and alluded to, which are not found in any of these narratives. Such as his being seen of five hundred brethren at one time, assembled after his resurrection: his discourses concerning his reign, previous to his ascension; and even one saying of his quoted by Paul, which, with the circumstances that gave rise to it, is omitted by them all, viz. "It is more blessed to give than to receive."
But some things are allued to by one, which happen to be recorded to another. For example--John tells us, that the disciple, that was known by the High Priest's family, went into the palace with Jesus; but he never tells us, that Jesus was carried to Caiaphas. This the others record. Luke tells us, that the women, who first visited the empty sepulchre, "found the stone rolled away;" but never tells us, that the stone was sealed, or fixed at the entrance of the sepulchre.
This fact not only teaches us, that the writers willingly omitted to record many things which they knew, as well as those which they have narrated, ecause necessary to the completion of their design; but that apparent incongruities in their narratives might be easily reconciled by a knowledge of those things, which either some, or all of them, found no occasion to record. This second fact, exhibits the weakness of those puny critics, who reject the testimony of these witnesses, because they did not record every thing which they knew, or in a way that suits their peculiar notions of what is fitting; and it also shows us, how little sense there is in all that talk about "contradictions and incongruities," and the attempts made to "reconcile" them, which we so often hear.
III. These historirans do not always aim, at giving the precise words of those they quote, nor even of the Saviour himself; but only the full and precise sense of what was uttered or written. This applies to their quotations of the Jewish prophets, the words of angels, and even of the Father himself.
It is true, that where they aim at giving the words of the Saviour, they do, in some respects, vary from one another. In this way, however, we may acocunt for it: the Savious's mother tongue, was the Syro-Chaldaie, then spoken in Judea: in translating his words into Greek, they sometimes differ from each other, as other translators differ, in selecting words which equally convey the same sense: and in writing to different people, they would naturally select such words, as would most correctly communicate to their understanding, the sense of his expressions. But, as weas said, they do not always aim at giving the precise words. For example: the testimony which the Father gave to Jesus at his immersion, is differently given by Mathew, Mark, and Luke:--"This is my beloved Son, in whom I delight." "Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I delight." In words, these atestations differ; but as respects the testimony in favor of Jesus, or as respects the sense, they are the same. But these writers do not, in this instance, differ more from one another, than one of them might differ from himself. The heavenly messenger said to Cornelius--"Thy prayers and thy alms are come up for a memorial before God." Yet Peter, in quoting these words, says--"Thy prayer is heard, and thine alms are had in remembrance in the sight of God." Many such instances may be found in these narratives, which, instead of detracting from, greatly add to, the credibility of the whole. But the use and application of these hints are beyond our limits, and left to the judicious reader.
IV. The Saviour often delivered the same maxims, parables, and discourses, during his public labors, and many of his miracles were accompanied with many of the same circumstances, though exhibited in times and places far remote.
A very superficial observer must see this. In the commission which Jesus gave both to the twelve and the seventy whom he employed during his lifetime, he authorizes and commands them to announce the same truths, to publish the same facts in every village and city, and to perform the same cures for a confirmation of the truths they declared. Indeed, it would be difficult to conceive how any public teacher, daily employed in communicating instruction on a few glorious topics, could avoid delivering the same discourses, answering the same questions, and exhibiting the same evidences, in unfolding the same kingdom; and in enforcing the same reformation on all persons, as did the Saviour, and yet avoid repeating many of the same things. This remark will solve some difficulties, which have appeared to some persons respecting fragments of the "Sermon on the Mount," and other discourses found in different narratives, and in different places of the same narrative, as well as some other imaginary difficulties of another kind.
V. A fifth hint of some consequence, is--That the order of narration in thse histories is similar to the Jewish and other ancient histories, and is not conducted according to the modern plan of historic writings; consequently, not so lucid to us, who are acustomed to a greater degree of precision in affixing dates to events and transactions, as also in describing the theatres on which they happen, as histories conducted on our plan.
We are liable to err in supposing that events following each other in close succession in the thread of narration, as immediately followed each other in time and place, in actual occurrence. But often events which appear to be immediately connected in the narrative, happened at tims and places considerably remote. One would think, on reading the close of Luke's testimony, that Jesus ascended to heaven the evening of the same day on which he arose from the grave, but the same historian tells us elsewhere, that he did not ascend till nearly six weeks afterwards. We shall leave these hints with the reader, and conclude with a few remarks on the whole plan of these historians.
Their plan, and its execution, are alike simple, beautiful, and supernatural. Viewing their narratives as a whle, and taking them together, they furnish a combination of evidence, sublime and majestic as the heavens, and as irrefragable as that which assigns to the Almighty the mechanism of the universe. The shafts of the conceited sceptic, aimed at these impregnable bulwarks of our faith, fall at his own feet, harmless as the schoolboy's arrows aimed at the extinction of the sun.
With what skill, simplicity, and beauty, is the nativity of this long-expected child introduced. His birth appears, for a time, to engross the undivided attention of all the pure and high intelligences in heaven and earth. God's heavenly messengers are ever on the wing with some important errand, relative to the care, safety, and management of this well-beloved Son. The eastern magi and the shepherds of Bethlehem, alike admonished from the skies, are found hasting to the cottage; alike importunate in their inquiries, and equally devout in presenting their acknowledgments at the feet of this wonderful stranger. both Herod and his nobles are troubled at the tidings of his birth, and alike apprehensive of a revolution in Judea, fatal to their ambitious expectations. The wakeful thoughts and the night visions of those honored females, the relatives and acquaintances of the favorite virgin, are all engrossed in scenes, in which this high-born infant is exhibited as full of grace and truth. The prophets and prophetesses in Jerusalem and Judea, in all their interviews, think and speak of nothing else. Some oracle concerning him, or some expression from his infant lips, are the only subjects that fill their hearts, to the exclusion of all and every thing besides.
Thus they introduce him. Through all th meanderings of the seed of Abraham for forty-two generations, they trace his ancestry, to th exact accomplishment of every syllable announced to the father of the faithful, or repeated to any of his illustrous descendants. Next they present the last of Israle's prophets, who came to consummate the Jewish line, as so much engrossed in preparing his way as to neglect ordinary attention to food and raiment, the chief concern of almost all the human race. They open the heaven of all the ancient Prophets, and pour upon his head a continued stream of prophetic light, illuminating, by its reflection, every step of his journey from the cradle to the cross; from the manger to the sepulchre of a rich nobleman, a senator of the commonwealth of Israel.
But here they do not stop. They narrate other attestations given of him still more illustrious. While John the Immerser, the favor of God to Israel, is loudly proclaiming, to the inhabitants of Judea and Jerusalem, JESUS, as the Lamb of God, taking away the sin of the world, and putting an end to sin offerings;--soon as Jesus emerges from the Jordan, soon as he is born of water,* the voice of his Father is heard. He bows the hevens. He declares aloud from the excellent glory, "This is my son, the beloved, in whom I delight," and to identify the person of whom he thus spoke, the Spirit of God, as a dove cowers down, descends upon his head, and there abides until it disappears in him.
Having thus introduced him with these high recommendations, with these credentials from earth and heaven, his own deeds are permitted to speak for him. All nature then feels and owns him universal Lord. His hand is never stretched out, but its benign and beneficent power is displayed and felt. His lips are ever teeming with grace and truth. Not only does the race of living me, amongst whom he is reckoned, feel and attest his omnipotence; not only do the air, the earth, and the sea, lay their respective tributes at his feet; but even th dead, and the spirits of the dead, of times past and present, both good and evil, come and own him as the Lord of all. Strange assemblange of evidence! Unparalleled concurrence of things human and divine, of things animate and inanimate, of things above, and things beneath, of all ranks and orders of intelligences, both good and evil, of the whole universe, in comfirmation of his pretensions!! Nothing like this was ever seen or thought of before. The only occurrence the least analogous to it, and that will not bear a comparison with it, which the annals of the world exhibited, was the universal assemblage of the inhabitants of the earth and air to Noah when entering the ark. Moved by Heaven, they forgot all their antipathies and their discords, and all concurred in avoucing Noah as their saviour, and the founder of a new world. This is but a feeble type; yet it is the only one all history affords of this universal suffrage, in acknowledging Jesus of Nazareth as God's own Son, and our only Saviour.
These sacred historians, then, had no model, which they could imitate; no lesson, nor instructions in their plan, from all that had gone before them. Moses himself failed to instruct them. No age, no history, no people set them an example. Their success in this cannot be attributed to any other cause, than to the supernatural qualifications which they possessed, than to the all-creating energies of that Spirit which brought all things to their remembrance, and to that unparalleled character which is the subject of their memoirs.
Touching their own character, too, it may be observed, that they exhibit themselves to be the most artless, the least accomplished, and the most faithful historians that ever wrote. They are the least indebted to human accomplishments of all writers whose workds survived one centruy,and yet they have excelled all others in th essential attributes of a historian. Their honesty and fidelity constitute the most prominent trait which arrests the reaader's attention, whether he thinks of them as men or as biographers. They seem always so completely absent to themselves and each other; so regardless of their own reputation; so entirely absorbed in their Master's praise, that they tell their own faults, and expose each other's weaknesses, #without ever seeming to think, or to care what opinion the reader would form of them, or of any thing they record. They seem to have no feelings in common with other writers. They are so full of facts; so enamoured with the words and deeds of their Master, that to record these was all they aimed at, was all they deemed necessary. To conclude, in the words of Doctor Macknight: "Through the whole of their histories, they have not pronounced one encomium upon Jesus, or upon any of his friends; nor thrown out one reflection upon any of his enemies, although much of both kinds might have been, and, no doubt, would have been done by them, had they been governed either by a spirit of imposture or enthusiasm. Christ's life is not praised by them, his death is not lamented, his friends are not commended, his enemies are not reproached; but every thing is told naked and unadorned, just as it happened; and all who read, are left to judge, and make reflections, for themselves.--So deeply are they impressed with the dignity and importance of their subject."
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