How to Study the New Testament.

1869 252 Such is the title of Dean Alford's small book before me. The first volume is devoted to the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Experience shows how few can form a just estimate of what is written with a knowledge beyond that of most and in a style attractive to the multitude. I propose therefore to notice the work briefly, so as to convey a correct notion of its character and plan, and thus to check undue confidence on the one hand and unjust depreciation on the other. Active-minded the author always is; and this is shown in suggesting questions rather than in settling them.

The first chapter is introductory, which opens with the parable of a varied landscape presenting wholly different objects to those who really observe it, not to speak of such as pass on as heedlessly as the cattle on the hillside. It appears to me, however, that if the Dean still adhere to his denial of a distinct divine design in each of the Gospels, he himself destroys the main key to an intelligent enjoyment and application of their stores, as well as the true solution of their apparent discrepancies.

We are told indeed of God's beneficent purpose in giving us not one indubitable, plain, historic Gospel, but four, differing as originally written, and yet more through thousands of various readings, and again through translation from the tongue of inspiration into the many languages of the earth (p. 9). But this is both superficial and confused: superficial, because if there be a difference of divine design in each of the Gospels, they must necessarily wear a diverse form flowing from the special object of the Spirit; confused, because variety of reading and version is only a question of man's infirmity, not of God's design. Things differing so widely and essentially ought not to be classed together.

So in page 10 the ignorance of the clergy and laity is not without reason rebuked. "The utmost that seems expected even from the clergy themselves is to be able to affirm that the scripture says so and so. But what scripture says it — with what intent — how far, in the words quoted, the context is duly had in regard — whether they do or do not rightly represent the sense of the original; these things not one clergyman in ten seems to take into account; still less those laymen who would be ashamed to quote in the same slovenly manner any of the well-known classical authors." But it is evident that when the various readings and the true rendering are ever so settled, to overlook the design of the Spirit is fatal to anything like a full understanding of the Gospels, which like the rest of scripture differs in this respect from all the books of men. God never writes save with a worthy moral purpose: still less is it conceivable when He is unfolding to us the glorious person of the Word made flesh and dwelling among us. The accuracy of a critic carries him not beyond the letter: the denial of design is more fatal than all the faults of a sloven, bad as these are.

"If we could know exactly how any given event related in the Gospels happened" (p. 11), it were but a small part of the matter; nor is it true that with this "we should at once be able to account for the variations in the narratives and the separate truth of each would be shown." It is a deeper question than one of "the exact details of any event thus narrated" or "of the position of the narrator with respect to it." The Dean only skims over the surface. No such acquaintance with facts suffices to meet the case; for scripture is not a mere human book. The solution is far more profound; yet is it nigh at hand, in our mouth and in our heart, if we confess a divine author and believe in a purpose in each according to God. "Our plain duty in making a right use of the Gospels is, firmly and fearlessly to recognize these (i.e., the apparent discrepancies), and to leave them as fearlessly unsolved, if no honest solution can be found. A way may be opened by and by, in the process of human discovery and the toil of human thought; or the time for a solution may not come till the day when all things shall be known." Our readers will see how all sinks to the level of man in the Dean's language; and consequently he rises no higher than the wit or labour of man. Is God duly in his thoughts? Can one write thus who believes in the presence, operation, and teaching of the Holy Spirit? He throws away the key, and then talks, with more or less despair, of the difficulty of opening the door. This is not the wisdom that descends from above, nor the faith that expects from the most bountiful Giver. It is honesty no doubt to confess our ignorance; but is there not One sent down to guide into all the truth? Distrust of Him is not good. It is to fail in faith, the first of requisites for the right use of the gospels, or of scripture in general, on the writer's own showing.

I cannot admire the comparison of spots in the sun apparent to the telescope (p. 13). We must not confound original perfectness as given of God through inspired men; and providential preservation in man's hands, spite of his feebleness and unfaithfulness in detail. Nor do I like the suggestion that one only supreme record, instead of four inspired records, "might have been perilous for a dispensation and a Church which was to regard not the letter but the spirit, and to walk not by sight but by faith" (p. 17). How evident the ruinous results of overlooking speciality of design. Admit this, and the true answer is plain: the fulness of Christ could not be adequately shown out but by the four Gospels.

As little does the aim of pp. 18 — 20 commend itself to my mind. Granted the variety of readings in the five hundred and more manuscripts of the Gospels; granted also that the most ancient MSS. least sanction the tendency to that assimilation of the Gospels which is found in the more modern copies. The distinct forms are of the greatest moment as the expression of distinct purpose, while every gospel is of course thoroughly true. In short, it is not the poor thought of merely trusting the Gospels, but of appreciating the higher truth of their various presentations of Christ.

The Dean proceeds next to compare the original with our Authorized English Version, which he says "abounds with errors and inadequate renderings." (p. 22.) This is true; yet I question whether any critical text yet offered would not lead to errors quite as great, and whether his own translation does not abound in renderings quite as inadequate. No doubt many mistakes in the Received Text are corrected by the results of critical labour; but who does not know the too many errors adopted so strangely by Griesbach, Scholz, Lachmann, Tischendorf, etc., by one or more, from which the faulty common text is free? Nor has Dean Alford himself kept clear of this perverse taste.

The chapter closes with the setting forth of two qualities indispensable for this holy study — honesty and charity. Are they really understood?

Is it real honesty to be ever exaggerating the apparent discrepancies of the gospels? Is it honesty at all to yield this point or that to the free handling of adversaries, when a spirit of unbelief has deprived one of the true God-given means of vindicating His word? Certainly there is no reason to be afraid of any truth; but why fear the lies or sneers of the enemy? Compromise of the truth will not conciliate cavillers; and we are bound to resist such as firmly as we would disclaim all compromise with falsehood. I have proved that many alleged facts among the critics are no facts at all; and there are many more which are in no way the fruit of God's will, but of man's weakness or worse, who has failed in respect of transmitting His word as decidedly as in every other sphere and function.

Is it real charity to write softly of those who corrupt or undermine the scripture? Human amiability is not divine love which abhors evil as decidedly and uncompromisingly as it cleaves to what is good. "For this is the love of God that we keep his commandments." Forbearance is all well in matters of conscience: of grace in enduring personal slights or wrongs there cannot be too much; but there is nothing like true love for resenting a dishonour done to Christ or to God's word. It is sheer weakness, if not an utterly faithless heart, which bears patiently infidel inroads on scripture, and which claims credit for honesty when, half-rash, half-timorous, it surrenders fragments of divinely-inspired truth to the pertinacious efforts of the unbeliever.

MARK is the subject of the second chapter. Here the same painful humanitarian spirit prevails. The Dean dwells much on the eye-witnesses. "Their oral narratives had been for the most part nearly in the same strain, especially as regarded those sacred words of the Lord. But in different parts of the christian world, according as the living voice of this or that apostle was present, the great narrative took different shapes and arrangements. Truth they all told — truth of a more precise and higher order than narratives founded on human accuracy can usually (!) attain; but each, from the very circumstance of his having been himself present at the occurrence of the facts, gave them as they impressed his own character and were reproduced by his own feelings. One loved to describe to his hearers the very look and gesture of the Lord as He spoke comfort or warning; another seems ever given to contemplate Him as the King and Lord of Israel announced in Old Testament prophecy, to retain in faithful memory the long connection of His wonderful discourses, and to announce with reverent recollection their stately periods; while another, or more than one, in different fields of Gentile labour might love to dwell on those of His sayings and acted parables which had world-wide reference — might love to look on Him as the light of the Gentiles as well as the glory of His people Israel. And so various narratives grew up here and there, all showing in the main form the common testimony which all the apostles bore before they parted from Jerusalem, but differently deflected from that common narrative in things indifferent."

This long extract (pp. 29, 30) will suffice to show the possession which this very low theory has got of the author's mind mainly flowing from the error already noticed; as if the differences were accidental infirmities, instead of being designed of God as a part of His wonderful method for giving us the truth fully and perfectly.

Again, it is another error, common alike to the traditional and to the rationalist parties, that Mark was Peter's interpreter and took to writing down the good tidings as usually delivered by that apostle. There is hardly more solidity in another tradition, that while St. Peter and St. Paul were founding the church at Rome (!), Matthew wrote his gospel. Of course, tradition makes Luke stand similarly related to Paul as Mark to Peter. Dean Alford rightly rejects the idea of each evangelist supplementing the account of his predecessor, but be makes them "three forms of the oral apostolic testimony, committed to writing, under the direction and inspiration of God's Holy Spirit, independently of one another." Yet inspiration, according to him, does not preclude mistake. He carries his Arminianism even into his notion of the inspired word. He then gives a sample of Mark's minute touches, as well as additional details not given elsewhere, which refute the otherwise unworthy notion that his gospel is an abridgment of Matthew's or Luke's. The chapter is closed with two useful lists: — one of the more remarkable differences from the received text, the other of the chief differences from the Authorized Version in matters of translation.

His first list consists of course chiefly of corrections in the text common to the best editors, such as Mark 1:2 ("Esaias the prophet" for "the prophets" which is an evident accommodation to the circumstances, and "before thee" omitted at the end); Mark 2:17, "to repentance" (brought in from Luke) omitted; so also Mark 3:5, "whole as the other" (from Matthew); verse 29, "sin" for "damnation" or judgment. I have passed over his second instance, which seems to me altogether precarious. Mark 1:4, "John the Baptist was in the wilderness preaching." That is, he inserts the article and omits the conjunction, contrary to the judgment of Griesbach, Scholz, and even Lachmann. Bengel does not even notice the various readings. Tischendorf in his second and third editions of Leipzig (1849) reads as Alford now does; but in his seventh he went back to his first impressions, though now in his eighth edition, which is excessively modified by the Sinai MS., he adopts the article, but retains kai which is wanting only in the Vatican and three cursives. It seems rash indeed to present this at least doubtful question as one of the more remarkable places where our present text in this gospel is not that of the more eminent authorities. He omits "that hear" in Mark 4:24, and from "verily" to the end of Mark 6:14 ("most probably"), as also "about" in verse 44. In Mark 9:31, Mark 10:34 he reads "after three days;" in Mark 11:8 not "off the trees" but "out of the fields;" in Mark 12:32, "thou hast truly said that he is one;" in Mark 13:4 "when these things are about to be all fulfilled" (omitting "spoken of by Daniel the prophet"); in Mark 14:22, he omits "eat" rightly; verse 24, with Tischendorf and Tregelles "new," also "because of me this night;" and verses 27 and 70, "and thy speech agreeth thereto." In Mark 15 verse 28 is omitted by recent critics save Lachmann.

I utterly reject the criticism which makes the gospel of Mark end with verse 8, because the Vatican and Sinai MSS. agree with some other slight confirmation, more particularly as there appears to be a space left at the end of the Vatican MS. The motive of the scribes for stopping there may be a question; but there is no sufficient reason to conclude that the gospel really terminated so abruptly. Nor does the difference of style, or rather the employment here of words and expressions not used elsewhere in the gospel, justify the inference that it was not written by Mark. Possibly it may have been added later by the same hand; for certainly the last verse indicates a date considerably later than that which is usually assigned to the publication of this gospel. Language can be easily imitated in so short a fragment; whereas writers would freely describe new facts with new expressions, while underneath the surface lie, in my opinion, the most indelible traces of connection with the character and aim stamped on this evangelist by the Holy Spirit. Would this organic link have been kept up, had apostolic men, during apostolic times, added the general compendium of the events of the resurrection with which the present gospel concludes?

The correction of renderings is generally right. Thus Mark 1:10, "cleft asunder" and verse 14 "delivered up;" in Mark 2:18 "were fasting," and verse 27, "on account of," twice; in Mark 3:14, "appointed" (not "ordained") (Mark 4:11, the omission of "to know" ought to be in the former list); in Mark 4:22, for "abroad," "to light;" in Mark 4:37, for "full," "filling;" in verse 38, the pillow (or boat-cushion), and in verse 41, "who then is this?" In Mark 5:30 for "virtue," "power;" in verse 36, "overheard," instead of "heard." In Mark 6:20, "kept him safe," for "observed him;" in verse 21, "chief men;" in verse 49, "an apparition;" and in verse 56, "market-place." In Mark 7, he puts Corban in the regular place of a predicate; in verse 28, "for even" (instead of "yet"); in verse 31, "borders" (as also in Mark 10:1). In Mark 8:36-37, he would say "life," instead of "soul," as in verse 35 — a very questionable change, if it be not worse. In Mark 9:12, he would make the latter part a question. In Mark 10:52, "saved." In Mark 11:17, "for all the nations." In Mark 12:26, "in the history concerning the bush, how;" and in 39, "chief places." In Mark 13:12, "shall put them to death." (Is not this a change for the worse?) In verse 28, "now learn the parable from the fig-tree: when now her branch becomes tender;" in verse 32, "none," and "not even." In Mark 14:2, "during the feast;" in verse 18, "even he that eats;" verse 31, "must die;" verse 38, "willing;" verse 68, "I neither knew him, nor;" and in verse 69, "the maid," omitting "again." In Mark 15:5, "made him no further answer." In verses 31, 32, there must be an error. It ought not to stand, "himself he cannot save, the Christ, the King of Israel. Let him descend now." In verses 37, 39, "breathed his last." In Mark 16:2, when the sun was risen;" in verse 8, "for trembling and amazement had possession of them;" in verse 12, "was manifested;" verse 14, "the eleven themselves;" in verse 15, "the whole creation;" and in verse 20, "the signs that followed."

Most of these are known. But some are doubtful, others I believe wrong. Space forbids discussion, even if other reasons did not weigh.