Cornelius A Lapide - The Great Commentary
Of the Number, Order, Agreement and Discrepancies of the Gospels
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 OF THE GOSPELS
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.