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 acquaintance with 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 theological import, and give us the plain meaning, of what the Apostles and Evangelists wrote.
The reader will please to consider that, when God spoke to man, he adopted the language of man. To the fathers of the Jewish nation he spake in their mother tongue. By his Son, and his Son by the Apostles, spake to every nation in its own language. When he spake to any nation, he uniformly adopted the words of that nation, in expressing his will to them. 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 hypothesis 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 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 find the 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 accustomed to explainany word not familiar to their readers, 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, "Repentance," "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 readers. From these plain facts and arguments, we deduce the following rule or direction to all those, who, under the guidance of Heaven, 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 you arrive at the meaning of any other book or writing, in the world.
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 different design in each separate communication. For in the prosecution 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 his 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 from both. But this will in the sequel become sufficiently 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 their design in committing to writing, their testimony concerning Jesus of Nazareth, was the same as induced them to deliver it verbally; 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 only inscribed to this personage, and through him made public property, and consequently was designed to produce the same effects in all persons similarly circumstanced; and, therefore, was as well designed to produce faith where it was not, as to confirm it where it already existed. 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 for the same person; and in doing this, they were equally guided by one and the 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 calling your 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 the 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 circumstances of his auditors; and adapts his 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 reasons that Paul 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 spake at random in publishing the glad tidings; and what he spake, was as deliberate as what he wrote. For the same reasons, therefore, had any one of the writers 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 the different places in which he published it. Suppose Matthew Levi to have written a narrative for the Jews in Judea, one for the conviction of the people of Rome, one for Jews and Greeks in Greece, one for the Asiatics in general; at different periods within the lapse of from twenty to thirty years; would it not have been as fitting 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 indispensable 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 for the people of Rome, for whom John Mark wrote, that he would do it at he time he published his testimony. This, and other differences between Matthew and Mark and the others, is precisely analogous to that between Paul in Damascus, and Paul in Athens. In a Jewish synagogue at 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 these four testimonies. The immediate design of these writings is 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 evidences 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 establishment of which he was an active and honored agent. We shall, then, suppose that I was possessed of all the facts and documents with which Matthew was furnished, and that
I designed to address my 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 I might write with the most effect, I would take into view, the circumstance of the Jews at the time of writing. I 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, I would select out of the information with which I 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, I would conclude, that unless I could satisfactorily prove that this Jesus was legitimately descended from Abraham through David, all further attempts to convince my countrymen would be in vain. For this purpose, then, I would apply to the Register's office, for a copy of the roll of the lineage of the house of David, well attested; and from this, trace Jesus to David; and thus prove, that in as far as pedigree was concerned, this person had the most legitimate claims upon their faith, as being unquestionably, from the most public and well-attested documents, a descendant of King David. In the next place I 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 my nation; and that the people of my time expected these to be fulfilled in the Messiah. I 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 history of that Elijah that was to come before him. Thus I would adduce the testimonies of Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Malachi, as all concurring in him.
Having, then, introduced him under all these favorable circumstances, and fairly brought him before my readers, accompanied with every attestation which either their own expectations or the sayings of their Prophets had made necessary; my 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 given at his first public manifestation to Israel. Then I 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, I would prefer those of the greatest notoriety, such as his public discourses: and of his miracles, I 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.
I would occasionally, as opportunity served, state the success attendant on his labors, mention the names of his principal followers, and introduce as early as possible to the notice of my readers, those prominent characters, who afterwards occupied so conspicuous a place in the triumphs of his cause. I would sometimes record such incidents in their history as would unfold their true character, and serve to give them credit with the people. We would always introduce the ancient predictions that bore upon him or them, and thus present a chain of evidence addressed to all that is in man, and to the peculiar 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 grave, his resurrection and ascension into heaven, we 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 instructors 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 time 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 what is written, than all comments upon the meaning of words, or what is called "the doctrines" of scripture.
Were we 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, we 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, and mention a few instances to show that these prophecies had been most exactly fulfilled in him. We would introduce John the Harbinger, merely as "a man sent from God." If we spoke of the people of Canaan, we would simply call them Jews. If we introduced any Hebrew names, such as Rabbi or Messiah, we would interpret them. If any of the sacred institutions of the Jew's religion, such as the Passover, was introduced, we would call it a feast of the Jews. If we referred to any of the usual customs of the Jews, we would explain them, such as the Jewish manner of purifying. If we spoke of places in that country, we would give a geographical description of them, such as Bethany upon the Jordan. If we alluded to the sectarian feelings of this people, we would described to what extent they were carried, by informing our readers that the Jews have no intercourse with the Samaritans. Nay, we 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, we 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, we would be particular in narrating the miracles wrought in, and near to, the metropolis; and the different arguments and debates to which they gave 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, we would more minutely detail what happened on those occasions. Such would be some of our 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.
He who sincerely desires to understand these narratives, will not only most unfeignedly present his supplications 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 communications, 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 explained 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 writer 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 feelings 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 communications 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 consideration 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 the immediate design of these narratives 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; the sublimest and the simplest story ever told. But this is not all. It is designed to accomplish an object superlatively grand, transcending--in degrees inexpressible--the most magnificent scheme that created 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 itself 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 ecstasies unalloyed. Yes! this is the benevolent and glorious design of these Testimonies. Books, written with such a design, with a design to purify, elevate, and 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, comes with a Divine character to man. Their claims on the attention and examination of those to whom they are presented, 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, methinks, is quite enough 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 these failed to lisp its praise. Nay, the brightest seraph that burns in heavenly light fails 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 heaven 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 human 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 themes.