Among Augustin's numerous theological productions, this one takes rank with the most toilsome and exhaustive. We find him expressing himself to that effect now and again, when he has occasion to allude to it. Thus, in the 112th Tractate on John (n. i), he calls it a laborious piece of literature; and in the 117th Tractate on the same evangelist, he speaks of the themes here dealt with as matters which were discussed with the utmost painstaking.
Its great object is to vindicate the Gospel against the critical assaults of the heathen. Paganism, having tried persecution as its first weapon, and seen it fail, attempted next to discredit the new faith by slandering its doctrine, impeaching its history, and attacking with special persistency the veracity of the Gospel writers. In this it was aided by some of Augustin's heretical antagonists, who endeavoured at times to establish a conspicuous inconsistency between the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian, and at times to prove the several sections of the New Testament to be at variance with each other. Many alleged that the original Gospels had received considerable additions of a spurious character. And it was a favorite method of argumentation, adopted both by heathen and by Manichæan adversaries, to urge that the evangelical historians contradicted each other. Thus, in the present treatise (i.7), Augustin speaks of this matter of the discrepancies between the Evangelists as the palmary argument wielded by his opponents. Hence, as elsewhere he sought to demonstrate the congruity of the Old Testament with the New, he set himself here to exonerate Christianity from the charge of any defect of harmony, whether in the facts recorded or in the order of their narration, between its four fundamental historical documents.
The plan of the work is laid out in four great divisions. In the first book, he refutes those who asserted that Christ was only the wisest among men, and who aimed at detracting from the authority of the Gospels, by insisting on the absence of any written compositions proceeding from the hand of Christ Himself, and by affirming that the disciples went beyond what had been his own teaching both on the subject of His divinity, and on the duty of abandoning the worship of the gods. In the second, he enters upon a careful examination of Matthew's Gospel, on to the record of the supper, comparing it with Mark, Luke, and John, and exhibiting the perfect harmony subsisting between them. In the third, he demonstrates the same consistency between the four Evangelists, from the account of the supper on to the end. And in the fourth, he subjects to a similar investigation those passages in Mark, Luke, and John, which have no proper parallels in Matthew.
For the discharge of a task like this, Augustin was gifted with much, but he also lacked much. The resources of a noble and penetrating intellect, profound spiritual insight, and reverent love for Scripture, formed high qualifications at his command. But he was deficient in exact scholarship. Thoroughly versed in Latin literature, as is evinced here by the happy notices of Ennius, Cicero, Lucan, and others of its great writers, he knew little Greek, and no Hebrew. He refers more than once in the present treatise to his ignorance of the original language of the Old Testament; and while his knowledge of that of the New was probably not so unserviceable as has often been supposed, instances like that in which he solves the apparent difficulty in the two burdens, mentioned in Gal. vi., without alluding to the distinction between the Greek words, make it sufficiently plain that it was not at least his invariable habit to prosecute these studies with the original in his view. Hence we find him missing many explanations which would at once have suggested themselves, had he not so implicitly followed the imperfect versions of the sacred text.
An analysis of the contents of the work might show much that is of interest to the Biblical critic. Principles elsewhere theoretically enunciated are seen here in their free application. In some respects, this effort is one of a more severely scientific character than is often the case with Augustin. It displays much less digression than is customary with him. The tendency to extravagant allegorizing is also less frequently indulged in, although it does come to the surface at times, as in the notable example of the interpretation of the names Leah and Rachel. His inordinate dependence upon the Septuagint, however, is as broadly marked here as anywhere. As he sometimes indicates an inclination to accept the story of Aristeas, in this composition he almost goes the length of claiming a special inspiration for these translators. On the other hand, in many passages we have the privilege of seeing his resolve to be no uncritical expositor. He pauses often to chronicle varieties of reading, sometimes in the Latin text and sometimes in the Greek. Thus he notices the occurrence of Lebbæus for Thaddæus, of Dalmanutha for Magedan, and the like, and mentions how some codices read woman for maid, in the sentence, The maid is not dead, but sleepeth (Matt. ix.24).
His principles of harmonizing are ordinarily characterized by simplicity and good sense. In general, he surmounts the difficulty of what may seem at first sight discordant versions of one incident, by supposing different instances of the same circumstances, or repeated utterances of the same words. He holds emphatically by the position, that wherever it is possible to believe two similar incidents to have taken place, no contradiction can legitimately be alleged, although no Evangelist may relate them both together. All merely verbal variations in the records of the same occurrence he regards as matters of too little consequence to create any serious perplexity to the student whose aim is honestly to reach the sense intended. Such narratives as those of the storm upon the lake, the healing of the centurion's servant, and the denials of Peter, furnish good examples of his method, and of the fair and fearless spirit of his inquiry. And however unsuccessful we may now judge some of his endeavours, when we consider the comparative poverty of his materials, and the untrodden field which he essayed to search, we shall not deny to this treatise the merit of grandeur in original conception, and exemplary faithfulness in actual execution.
S. D. F. S.