Commentaries were anciently written upon the Scriptures; harmonies formed out of them; different copies carefully collated; and versions made of them into different languages.
No greater proof can be given of the esteem in which these books were holden by the ancient Christians, or of the sense then entertained of their value and importance, than the industry bestowed upon them. And it ought to be observed that the value and importance of these books consisted entirely in their genuineness and truth. There was nothing in them, as works of taste or as compositions, which could have induced any one to have written a note upon them. Moreover, it shows that they were even then considered as ancient books. Men do not write comments upon publications of their own times: therefore the testimonies cited under this head afford an evidence which carries up the evangelic writings much beyond the age of the testimonies themselves, and to that of their reputed authors.
I. Tatian, a follower of Justin Martyr, and who flourished about the year 170, composed a harmony, or collation of the Gospels, which he called Diatessaron, of the four. The title, as well as the work, is remarkable; because it shows that then, as now, there were four, and only four, Gospels in general use with Christians. And this was little more than a hundred years after the publication of some of them. (Lardner, Cred. vol. i. p.307.)
II. Pantaenus, of the Alexandrian school, a man of great reputation and learning, who came twenty years after Tatian, wrote many commentaries upon the Holy Scriptures, which, as Jerome testifies, were extant in his time. (Lardner, Cred. vol. i. p.455.)
III. Clement of Alexandria wrote short explications of many books of the Old and New Testament. (Lardner, Cred. vol. ii. p.462.)
IV. Tertullian appeals from the authority of a later version, then in use, to the authentic Greek. (Lardner, Cred. vol. ii. p.638.)
V. An anonymous author, quoted by Eusebius, and who appears to have written about the year 212, appeals to the ancient copies of the Scriptures, in refutation of some corrupt readings alleged by the followers of Artemon. (Lardner, Cred. vol. iii. p.46.)
VI. The same Eusebius, mentioning by name several writers of the church who lived at this time, and concerning whom he says, |There still remain divers monuments of the laudable industry of those ancient and ecclesiastical men,| (i. e. of Christian writers who were considered as ancient in the year 300,) adds, |There are, besides, treatises of many others, whose names we have not been able to learn, orthodox and ecclesiastical men, as the interpretations of the Divine Scriptures given by each of them show.| (Lardner, Cred. vol. ii. p.551.)
VII. The last five testimonies may be referred to the year 200; immediately after which, a period of thirty years gives us Julius Africanus, who wrote an epistle upon the apparent difference in the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, which he endeavours to reconcile by the distinction of natural and legal descent, and conducts his hypothesis with great industry through the whole series of generations. (Lardner, Cred. vol. iii. p.170.)
Ammonius, a learned Alexandrian, who composed, as Tatian had done, a harmony of the four Gospels, which proves, as Tatian's work did, that there were four Gospels, and no more, at this time in use in the church. It affords also on instance of the zeal of Christians for those writings, and of their solicitude about them. (Lardner, Cred. vol. iii. p.122.)
And, above both these, Origen, who wrote commentaries, or homilies, upon most of the books included in the New Testament, and upon no other books but these. In particular, he wrote upon Saint John's Gospel, very largely upon Saint Matthew's, and commentaries, or homilies, upon the Acts of the Apostles. (Lardner, Cred. vol. iii. pp.352, 192, 202 & 245.)
VIII. In addition to these, the third century likewise contains -- Dionysius of Alexandria, a very learned man, who compared, with great accuracy, the accounts in the four Gospels of the time of Christ's resurrection, adding a reflection which showed his opinion of their authority: |Let us not think that the evangelists disagree or contradict each other, although there be some small difference; but let us honestly and faithfully endeavour to reconcile what we read.| (Lardner, Cred. vol. iv. p.166.)
Victorin, bishop of Pettaw, in Germany, who wrote comments upon Saint Matthew's Gospel. (Lardner, Cred. vol. iv. p.195.)
Lucian, a presbyter of Antioch; and Hesychius, an Egyptian bishop, who put forth editions of the New Testament.
IX. The fourth century supplies a catalogue of fourteen writers, who expended their labours upon the books of the New Testament, and whose works or names are come down to our times; amongst which number it may be sufficient, for the purpose of showing the sentiments and studies of learned Christians of that age, to notice the following:
Eusebius, in the very beginning of the century, wrote expressly upon the discrepancies observable in the Gospels, and likewise a treatise, in which he pointed out what things are related by four, what by three, what by two, and what by one evangelist. (Lardner, Cred. vol. viii. p.46.) This author also testifies what is certainly a material piece of evidence, |that the writings of the apostles had obtained such an esteem as to be translated into every language both of Greeks and Barbarians, and to be diligently studied by all nations.| (Lardner, Cred. vol. viii. p.201.) This testimony was given about the year 300; how long before that date these translations were made does not appear.
Damasus, bishop of Rome, corresponded with Saint Jerome upon the exposition of difficult texts of Scripture; and, in a letter still remaining, desires Jerome to give him a clear explanation of the word Hosanna, found in the New Testament; |He (Damasus) having met with very different interpretations of it in the Greek and Latin commentaries of Catholic writers which he had read.| (Lardner, Cred. vol. ix. P.108) This last clause shows the number and variety of commentaries then extant.
Gregory of Nyssen, at one time, appeals to the most exact copies of Saint Mark's Gospel; at another time, compares together, and proposes to reconcile, the several accounts of the Resurrection given by the four Evangelists; which limitation proves that there were no other histories of Christ deemed authentic beside these, or included in the same character with these. This writer observes, acutely enough, that |the disposition of the clothes in the sepulchre, the napkin that was about our Saviour's head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself, did not bespeak the terror and hurry of thieves, and therefore refutes the story of the body being stolen.| (Lardner, Cred. vol. ix. p.163.)
Ambrose, bishop of Milan, remarked various readings in the Latin copies of the New Testament, and appeals to the original Greek;
And Jerome, towards the conclusion of this century, put forth an edition of the New Testament in Latin, corrected, at least as to the Gospels, by Greek copies, and |those (he says) ancient.|
Lastly, Chrysostom, it is well known, delivered and published a great many homilies, or sermons, upon the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.
It is needless to bring down this article lower, but it is of importance to add, that there is no example of Christian writers of the first three centuries composing comments upon any other books than those which are found in the New Testament, except the single one of Clement of Alexandria commenting upon a book called the Revelation of Peter.
Of the ancient versions of the New Testament, one of the most valuable is the Syriac. Syriac was the language of Palestine when Christianity was there first established. And although the books of Scripture were written in Greek, for the purpose of a more extended circulation than within the precincts of Judea, yet it is probable that they would soon be translated into the vulgar language of the country where the religion first prevailed. Accordingly, a Syriac translation is now extant, all along, so far as it appears, used by the inhabitants of Syria, bearing many internal marks of high antiquity, supported in its pretensions by the uniform tradition of the East, and confirmed by the discovery of many very ancient manuscripts in the libraries of Europe, It is about 200 years since a bishop of Antioch sent a copy of this translation into Europe to be printed; and this seems to be the first time that the translation became generally known to these parts of the world. The bishop of Antioch's Testament was found to contain all our books, except the second epistle of Peter, the second and third of John, and the Revelation; which books, however, have since been discovered in that language in some ancient manuscripts of Europe. But in this collection, no other book, besides what is in ours, appears ever to have had a place. And, which is very worthy of observation, the text, though preserved in a remote country, and without communication with ours, differs from ours very little, and in nothing that is important (Jones on the Canon, vol. i. e.14.).