Saint Matthew - Chapter XVI
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 Latin translation, at the Medici printing press, A.D. 1591. I frequently cite both these versions.
In Rome I have also found in the Vatican Library, and also in the library of our [Jesuit] Roman college, 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, together with evangelical life and perfection, flourished in those regions. In them there were swarms of holy monks and brave martyrs. A Persian gospel was transmitted by the Reverend Father Jerome Xavier of the Society of Jesus, 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 790, which the Moslems reckon from the beginning of their sect of Mohammed, which began in the year of our Lord 591. Therefore the year 790 of the Moslems is the year 1381 since the birth of Christ, when this codex was transcribed. The original itself was very much more ancient, for which reason the version contains a great number of Persian words which differ considerably from modern Persian. Of all these versions I propose to make use, though in moderation, and with a grain of salt. For they have not the authority of the Greek and Latin gospels; but they confirm, and to some extent shed light on 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 Kircher of our Society, an expert in the Oriental languages, as may be seen by the Lexicon which he has lately published.
Moreover, it is said that S. Matthew preached in the hinterland of Ethiopia, which is closer to Egypt and now called Sennaar (the ancient kingdom in what is now eastern Sudan), where there are black Ethiopians. He is said to have died in the city of Luah, where there are still standing churches dedicated to S. Matthew. 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,” because he brought them true peace and salvation. He was educated amongst the Eastern Arabs, from whom he drew his knowledge of Christianity and the holy scriptures, which he afterward communicated to the whole of Ethiopia, for which reason he is called its apostle. That is why the Ethiopic version agrees with the Arabic, from which it was derived.
Very many, both in ancient and in later and modern times, have written commentaries on the gospels (some authors have treated all four, while many have written commentaries on one only), and have explained them with their annotations: for instance, Origen, S. Jerome, S. Augustine, S. Ambrose, S. Cyril, S. Chrysostom, S. Gregory, Bede, Theophylactus, and Euthymius. Hear 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 his homilies, which interpret the gospel phrase by phrase. I have read also the commentaries of Theophilus, bishop of the city of Antioch, of Hippolytus the Martyr, and of Theodore of Heraclea, of Apollinarius of Laodicea, 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 almost 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.”
Among commentaries which are so divergent in their interpretations, you do not know which one to prefer and follow. Many, moreover, are so wordy that not only students but even learned scholars who devote themselves entirely to sacred scripture do not have the time and leisure to read them (not to mention the intellectual strength and endurance). Outstanding commentators are Alphonsus Tostatus, bishop of Avila, who compiled four gigantic tomes on the gospel of S. Matthew alone; Cornelius Jansen, bishop of Ghent; Franz Lucas, dean of S. Omer; then from our Society [of Jesus], Alphonsus Salmeron, Joannes Maldonatus, Franciscus Toletus, Sebastianus Barradius. Jansen excels in the solidity of his interpretation; Lucas in the Greek, Hebrew, Chaldaean and Syriac languages; Salmeron in applying parables; Toletus in the maturity of his judgment; Barradius in the moral sense, which is useful both for meditation and preaching. Many innovators and sectarians [heretics], too, have commented on the gospels. So great was the reverence of them all for the gospels, that in our age the followers of Luther wished to be called “Evangelicals,” when in fact they are “Kakangelicals” [the Greek prefix ev- means “good”; kak- means “bad”]. No one has dared to doubt the divine authority of the gospels except the followers of Mani, the Manichees, the Ebionites, Cerinthus, Carpocrates, Marcion, and in our day the Enthusiasts, the Anabaptists and the Servetans. Countless heretics have adorned the gospels with their commentaries, or, rather, have defiled and corrupted them such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Beza, and Pelican, to such an extent that Augustinus Marloratus has compiled the Symmystes [“Fellow Initiates”], a catena or anthology of excerpts from the works of the more famous of them, easily twenty in number.
For myself, I have studied these commentaries, partly at Louvain, A.D. 1600, partly when I was researching, teaching, and lecturing publicly on the gospels at Rome; and now I am studying the commentators who have subsequently written upon them. I am now an old man, and have passed nearly all my life in learning in the school of the holy scriptures, and for almost forty years I have striven to teach this sacred science, both by lecturing and by writing. In a field so vast, so sublime and difficult, no one can be a teacher and doctor until he has spent a long time in studying as a disciple of the doctors. Indeed, Divination is in the lips of the king [learned doctor]; his mouth shall not err in judgment . . . (Proverbs 16:10).
Finally, the method and manner of interpreting the gospels has been and is two-fold. The first, typical of many ancient writers and even some modern ones, is to weave the four holy gospels together in such a way as to harmonize them beautifully and to compile from them a single Monotessaron [Greek: One-from-Four]. The first to do this was Theophilus, the seventh successor to S. Peter as Bishop of Antioch, says S. Jerome (ad Algasiam); then Tatianus, who fathered the Encratite heresy; third Ammonius who, according to S. Jerome, was followed by Eusebius of Cæsaria. Many more recent authors have imitated them, but most laudably Cornelius Jansenius. The second is the method of those authors who have commented on each gospel in turn, and who do so now. I shall follow the latter, both because this method is more clear, simple and orderly (for it is easy to find the particular passage that you are looking for, from whatever gospel, but it is difficult to find a verse in the Monotessaron, or in a concordance or harmony conflated from the four gospels, all mixed together), and also because it is my duty to interpret sacred scripture as it exists, and not to coin a new harmony of the gospel. Nevertheless I shall do this in such a way that I shall note in the commentary on one Evangelist the things that the others mention, and in the other commentaries I shall refer the readers to the parallel passage, so that there will be no need to repeat the same thing twice, thrice or four times. To this preface I now append a Chronotaxin or chronology of the events from all four gospels, in sequence, which shall serve as a synopsis of the entire commentary.