Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, July 13th, 2024
the Week of Proper 9 / Ordinary 14
StudyLight.org has pledged to help build churches in Uganda. Help us with that pledge and support pastors in the heart of Africa.
Click here to join the effort!

Bible Commentaries
Matthew 1

Lightfoot's Commentary on the GospelsLightfoot's Commentary

Search for…
Enter query below:
Additional Authors

Verse 1

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

[The book of the generation of Jesus Christ.] Ten stocks came out of Babylon; 1. Priests. 2. Levites. 3. Israelites. 4. Common persons; as to the priesthood: such whose fathers, indeed, were sprung from priests, but their mothers unfit to be admitted to the priests’ marriage-bed. 5. Proselytes. 6. Liberti; or servants set free. 7. Nothi; such as were born in wedlock; but that which was unlawful. 8. Nethinims. 9. Bastards; such as came of a certain mother, but of an uncertain father. 10. Such as were gathered up out of the streets, whose fathers and mothers were uncertain.

A defiled generation indeed! And, therefore, brought up out of Babylon in this common sink, according to the opinion of the Hebrews, that the whole Jewish seed still remaining there might not be polluted by it. For Ezra went not up out of Babylon, until he had rendered it pure as flour. They are the words of the Babylonian Gemara, which the Gloss explains thus; "He left not any there that were illegitimate in any respect, but the priests and Levites only, and Israelites of a pure and undefiled stock. Therefore, he brought up with him these ten kinds of pedigrees, that these might not be mingled with those, when there remained now no more a Sanhedrim there, which might take care of that matter. Therefore he brought them to Jerusalem, where care might be taken by the Sanhedrim fixed there, that the legitimate might not marry with the illegitimate."

Let us think of these things a little while we are upon our entrance into the Gospel-history:

I. How great a cloud of obscurity could not but arise to the people concerning the original of Christ, even from the very return out of Babylon, when they either certainly saw, or certainly believed that they saw, a purer spring of Jewish blood there than in the land of Israel itself!

II. How great a care ought there to be in the families of pure blood, to preserve themselves untouched and clean from this impure sink; and to lay up among themselves genealogical scrolls from generation to generation as faithful witnesses and lasting monuments of their legitimate stock and free blood!

Hear a complaint and a story in this case: "R. Jochanan said, By the Temple, it is in our hand to discover who are not of pure blood in the land of Israel: but what shall I do, when the chief men of this generation lie hid?" (that is, when they are not of pure blood, and yet we must not declare so much openly concerning them). "He was of the same opinion with R. Isaac, who said, A family (of the polluted blood) that lies hid, let it lie hid. Abai also saith, We have learned this also by tradition, That there was a certain family called the family of Beth-zeripha, beyond Jordan, and a son of Zion removed it away." (The Gloss is, Some eminent man, by a public proclamation, declared it impure.) "But he caused another which was such" [that is, impure] "to come near. And there was another which the wise men would not manifest."

III. When it especially lay upon the Sanhedrim, settled at Jerusalem to preserve pure families, as much as in them lay, pure still; and when they prescribed canons of preserving the legitimation of the people (which you may see in those things that follow at the place alleged), there was some necessity to lay up public records of pedigrees with them: whence it might be known what family was pure, and what defiled. Hence that of Simon Ben Azzai deserves our notice: "I saw (saith he) a genealogical scroll in Jerusalem, in which it was thus written; ’N., a bastard of a strange wife.’ " Observe, that even a bastard was written in their public books of genealogy, that he might be known to be a bastard, and that the purer families might take heed of the defilement of his seed. Let that also be noted: "They found a book of genealogy at Jerusalem, in which it was thus written; ’Hillel was sprung from David. Ben Jatsaph from Asaph. Ben Tsitsith Hacceseth from Abner. Ben Cobisin from Achab,’ " etc. And the records of the genealogies smell of those things which are mentioned in the text of the Misna concerning ’wood-carrying’: "The priests’ and people’s times of wood-carrying were nine: on the first day of the month Nisan, for the sons of Erach, the sons of Judah: the twentieth day of Tammuz, for the sons of David, the son of Judah: the fifth day of Ab, for the sons of Parosh, the son of Judah: the seventh of the same month for the sons of Jonadab the son of Rechab: the tenth of the same for the sons of Senaah, the son of Benjamin," etc.

It is, therefore, easy to guess whence Matthew took the last fourteen generations of this genealogy, and Luke the first forty names of his; namely, from the genealogical scrolls at that time well enough known, and laid up in the public repositories, and in the private also. And it was necessary, indeed, in so noble and sublime a subject, and a thing that would be so much inquired into by the Jewish people as the lineage of the Messiah would be, that the evangelists should deliver a truth, not only that could not be gainsaid, but also that might be proved and established from certain and undoubted rolls of ancestors.

[Of Jesus Christ.] That the name of Jesus is so often added to the name of Christ in the New Testament, is not only that thereby Christ might be pointed out for the Saviour; which the name Jesus signifies; but also, that Jesus might be pointed out for true Christ; against the unbelief of the Jews, who though they acknowledged a certain Messiah; or Christ; yet they stiffly denied that Jesus of Nazareth was he. This observation takes place in numberless places of the New Testament; Acts 2:36; Acts 8:35; 1 Corinthians 16:22; 1 John 2:22; 1 John 4:15, etc.

[The Son of David.] That is, "the true Messias." For by no more ordinary and more proper name did the Jewish nation point out the Messiah than by The Son of David. See Matthew 12:23; Matthew 21:9; Matthew 22:42; Luke 18:38; and everywhere in the Talmudic writings, but especially in Babylonian Sanhedrim: where it is also discussed, What kind of times those should be when the Son of David should come.

The things which are devised by the Jews concerning Messiah Ben Joseph (which the Targum upon Canticles 4:5 calls ’Messiah Ben Ephraim’) are therefore devised, to comply with their giddiness and loss of judgment in their opinion of the Messiah. For, since they despised the true Messiah, who came in the time fore-allotted by the prophets, and crucified him; they still expect I know not what chimerical one, concerning whom they have no certain opinion: whether he shall be one, or two; whether he shall arise from among the living, or from the dead; whether he shall come in the clouds of heaven, or sitting upon an ass, etc.: they expect a Son of David; but they know not whom, they know not when.

Verse 2

Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren;

[Judas.] In Hebrew, Jehudah. Which word not only the Greeks, for want of the letter "h" in the middle of a word, but the Jews themselves, do contract into Judah; which occurs infinite times in the Jerusalem Talmud. The same person who is called R. Jose Bi R. Jehudah; in the next line is called R. Jose Bi R. Judah...

Verse 5

And Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse;

[Booz of Rachab.] So far the Jewish writers agree with Matthew, that they confess Rachab was married to some prince of Israel, but mistaking concerning the person: whether they do this out of ignorance, or wilfully, let themselves look to that. Concerning this matter, the Babylonian Gemara hath these words: "Eight prophets and those priests sprung from Rachab, and they are these, Neriah, Baruch, Seraiah, Maaseiah, Jeremiah, Hilkiah, Hanameel, and Shallum. R. Judah saith, Huldah also was of the posterity of Rachab." And a little after, "There is a tradition, that she, being made a proselytess, was married to Joshua": which Kimchi also produceth in Joshua_6. Here the Gloss casts in a scruple: "It sounds somewhat harshly (saith it), that Joshua married one that was made a proselyte, when it was not lawful to contract marriage with the Canaanites, though they became proselytes. Therefore we must say that she was not of the seven nations of the Canaanites, but of some other nation, and sojourned there. But others say that that prohibition took not place before the entrance into the promised land," etc.

Verse 8

And Asa begat Josaphat; and Josaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat Ozias;

[And Joram begat Ozias.] The names of Ahazias, Joash, and Amazias, are struck out. See the history in the books of the Kings, and 1 Chronicles 3:11-12.

I. The promise that "the throne of David should not be empty," passed over, after a manner, for some time into the family of Jehu, the overthrower of Joram’s family. For when he had razed the house of Ahab, and had slain Ahaziah, sprung, on the mother’s side, of the family of Ahab, the Lord promiseth him that his sons should reign unto the fourth generation, 2 Kings 10:30. Therefore however the mean time the throne of David was not empty, and that Joash and Amazias sat during the space between, yet their names are not unfitly omitted by our evangelist, both because they were sometimes not very unlike Joram in their manners; and because their kingdom was very much eclipsed by the kingdom of Israel, when Ahazias was slain by Jehu, and his cousin Amazias taken and basely subdued by his cousin Joash, 2 Chronicles 25:23.

II. "The seed of the wicked shall be cut off," Psalms 37:28. Let the studious reader observe that, in the original, in this very place, the letter Ain, which is the last letter of wicked; and of seed; is cut off, and is not expressed; when, by the rule of acrostic verse (according to which this Psalm is composed), that letter ought to begin the next following verse.

III. "Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, etc. For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation," (Exodus 20:5).

Joram walked in the idolatrous ways of the kings of Israel, according to the manner of the family of Ahab, 2 Kings 8:18. Which horrid violation of the second command God visits upon his posterity, according to the threatening of that command; and therefore the names of his sons are dashed out unto the fourth generation.

IV. The Old Testament also stigmatizeth that idolatry of Joram in a way not unlike this of the New; and shows that family unworthy to be numbered among David’s progeny, 2 Chronicles 22:2; Ahazias, the son of two and forty years; that is, not of his age (for he was not above two-and-twenty, 2 Kings 8:26), but of the duration of the family of Omri, of which stock Ahazias was, on the mother’s side; as will sufficiently appear to him that computes the years. A fatal thing surely! That the years of a king of Judah should be reckoned by the account of the house of Omri.

V. Let a genealogical style not much different be observed, 1 Chronicles 4:1; where Shobal, born in the fifth or sixth generation from Judah, is reckoned as if he were an immediate son of Judah. Compare Matthew 2:50.

In the like manner, Ezra_7, in the genealogy of Ezra, five or six generations are erased.

[Please see Genealogies of the Bible: A Neglected Subject (111k) etc. at the Arthur Custance, Doorway Papers Library site regarding these lists and the "missing" names.]

Verse 11

And Josias begat Jechonias and his brethren, about the time they were carried away to Babylon:

[And Josias begat Jechonias.] The sons of Josias were these: the first-born, Jochanan; the second, Joachim; the third, Zedekiah; the fourth, Shallum, 1 Chronicles 3:15. Who this Shallum was, the Jerusalem Talmudists do dispute: "R. Jochanan saith, Jochanan and Jehoachaz were the same. And when it is written, Jochanan the first-born; it means this; that he was the first-born to the kingdom: that is, he first reigned. And R. Jochanan saith, Shallum and Zedekias are the same. And when it is written, Zedekias the third Shallum the fourth; he was the third in birth, but he reigned fourth." The same things are produced in the tract Sotah. But R. Kimchi much more correctly: "Shallum (saith he) is Jechonias, who had two names, and was reckoned for the son of Josias, when he was his grandchild" (or the son of his son); "For the sons of sons are reputed for sons." Compare Jeremiah 22:11 with Jeremiah 22:24; and the thing itself speaks it. And that which the Gemarists now quoted say, Zedekiah was also called Shallum, because in his days ’Shalmah,’ ’an end was put to’ the kingdom of the family of David; this also agrees very fitly to Jechonias, Jeremiah 22:28-30.

Verse 12

And after they were brought to Babylon, Jechonias begat Salathiel; and Salathiel begat Zorobabel;

[Jechonias begat Salathiel.] That is, "a son of the kingdom," or successor in that dignity of the house of David, whatsoever it was, which was altogether withered in the rest of the sons of Josiah, but did somewhat flourish again in him, 2 Kings 25:27. And hence it is, that of all the posterity of Josiah, Jechonias only is named by St. Matthew.

Jechonias, in truth, was without children; Jeremiah 22:30; and Salathiel, properly speaking, was the son of Neri, Luke 3:27; but yet Jechonias is said to beget him; not that he was truly his father, but that the other was his successor; not, indeed, in his kingly dignity, for that was now perished, but in that which now was the chief dignity among the Jews. So 1 Chronicles 3:16; Zedekias is called the son, either of Jehoiakim, whose brother indeed he was, or of Jechonias, whose uncle he was; because he succeeded him in the kingly dignity.

The Lord had declared, and that not without an oath, that Jechonias should be without children. The Talmudists do so interpret "R. Judah saith, All they of whom it is said, These shall be without children; they shall have no children. And those of whom it is said, They shall die without children; they bury their children." [Leviticus 20:20-21]

So Kimchi also upon the place; "The word (saith he) means this; That his sons shall die in his life, if he shall now have sons: but if he shall not now have sons, he never shall. But our Rabbins of blessed memory say, That he repented in prison. And they say moreover, Oh! How much doth repentance avail, which evacuates a penal edict! For it is said, ’Write ye this man childless’: but, he repenting, this edict turned to his good," etc. "R. Jochanan saith, His carrying away expiated. For when it is said, ’Write this man childless,’ after the carrying away it is said, ’The sons of Coniah, Assir his son, Shealtiel his son.’ " These things are in Babylonian Sanhedrim, where these words are added, "Assir his son, because his mother conceived him in prison."

But the words in the original (1 Chronicles 3:17) are these...Now the sons of Jechonias bound [or imprisoned] were Shealtiel his son. Which version both the accents and the order of the words confirm...

Verse 16

And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

[And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary.] The mother’s family is not to be called a family. Hence the reason may very easily be given, why Matthew brings down the generation to Joseph, Mary’s husband; but Luke to Eli, Mary’s father. These two frame the genealogy two ways, according to the double notion of the promise of Christ. For he is promised, as the ’seed of the woman,’ and as the ’Son of David’; that, as a man, this, as a king. It was therefore needful, in setting down his genealogy, that satisfaction should be given concerning both. Therefore Luke declareth him the promised seed of the woman, deducing his mother’s stock, from whence man was born, from Adam; Matthew exhibits his royal original, deriving his pedigree along through the royal family of David to Joseph, his (reputed) father.

Verse 17

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations.

[Fourteen generations.] Although all things do not square exactly in this threefold number of fourteen generations; yet there is no reason why this should be charged as a fault upon Matthew, when in the Jewish schools themselves it obtained for a custom, yea, almost for an axiom, to reduce things and numbers to the very same, when they were near alike. The thing will be plain by an example or two, when a hundred almost might be produced.

Five calamitous things are ascribed to the same day, that is, to the ninth day of the month Ab. "For that day (say they) it was decreed, That the people should not go into the promised land: the same day, the first Temple was laid waste, and the second also: the city Bitter was destroyed, and the city Jerusalem ploughed up." Not that they believed all these things fell out precisely the same day of the month; but, as the Babylonian Gemara notes upon it, That they might reduce a fortunate thing to a holy day, and an unfortunate to an unlucky day.

The Jerusalem Gemara, in the same tract, examines the reason why the daily prayers consist of the number of eighteen, and among other things hath these words; "The daily prayers are eighteen, according to the number of the eighteen Psalms, from the beginning of the Book of Psalms to that Psalm whose beginning is, ’The Lord hear thee in the day of trouble,’ " [which Psalm, indeed, is the twentieth Psalm Psalms_20]. "But if any object, that nineteen Psalms Psalms_19 reach thither, you may answer, The Psalm which begins, ’Why did the heathen rage,’ is not of them," a distinct Psalm. Behold, with what liberty they fit numbers to their own case.

Inquiry is made, whence the number of the thirty-nine more principal servile works, to be avoided on the sabbath-day, may be proved. Among other, we meet with these words; "R. Chaninah of Zippor saith, in the name of R. Abhu, Aleph denotes one, Lamed thirty, He five, Dabar one, Debarim two. Hence are the forty works, save one, concerning which it is written in the law. The Rabbins of Caesarea say, Not any thing is wanting out of his place: Aleph one, Lamed thirty, Cheth eight: our profound doctors do not distinguish between He and Cheth": that they may fit number to their case...

"R. Joshua Ben Levi saith, In all my whole life I have not looked into the [mystical] book of Agada but once; and then I looked into it, and found it thus written, A hundred and seventy-five sections of the law; where it is written, He spake, he said, he commanded; they are for the number of the years of our father Abraham." And a little after; "A hundred and forty and seven Psalms, which are written in the Book of the Psalms [note this number], are for the number of the years of our father Jacob. Whence this is hinted, that all the praises wherewith the Israelites praise God are according to the years of Jacob. Those hundred and twenty and three times, wherein the Israelites answer Hallelujah, are according to the number of the years of Aaron," etc.

They do so very much delight in such kind of concents, that they oftentimes screw up the strings beyond the due measure, and stretch them till they crack. So that if a Jew carps at thee, O divine Matthew, for the unevenness of thy fourteens, out of their own schools and writings thou hast that, not only whereby thou mayest defend thyself, but retort upon them.

Verse 18

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

[When as his mother was espoused] no woman of Israel was married, unless she had been first espoused. "Before the giving of the law (saith Maimonides), if the man and the woman had agreed about marriage, he brought her into his house, and privately married her. But after the giving of the law, the Israelites were commanded, that, if any were minded to take a woman for his wife, he should receive her, first, before witnesses; and thenceforth let her be to him a wife, as it is written, If any one take a wife. This taking is one of the affirmative precepts of the law, and is called espousing." Of the manner and form of espousing, you may read till you are weary, in that tractate, and in the Talmudic tract, Kiddushin.

[Before they came together.] "In many places the man espouseth the woman; but doth not bring her home to him, but after some space of time." So the Gloss upon Maimonides.

Distinction is made by the Jewish canons, and that justly and openly, between private society or discourse between the espouser and the espoused, and the bringing of the espoused into the husband’s house. Of either of the two may those words be understood, before they came together; or, rather, of them both. He had not only not brought her home to him, but he had no manner of society with her alone, beyond the canonical limits of discourse, that were allowed to unmarried persons; and yet she was found with child.

[She was found with child.] Namely, after the space of three months from her conception, when she was now returned home from her cousin Elizabeth. See Luke 1:56; and compare Genesis 38:24.

The masters of the traditions assign this space to discover a thing of that nature. "A woman (say they) who is either put away from her husband, or become a widow, neither marrieth, nor is espoused, but after ninety days: namely, that it may be known, whether she be big with child or no; and that distinction may be made between the offspring of the first husband and of the second. In like manner, a husband and wife, being made proselytes, are parted from one another for ninety days, that judgment may be made between children begotten in holiness," (that is, within the true religion; see 1 Corinthians 7:14) "And children begotten out of holiness."

Verse 19

Then Joseph her husband, being a just man; and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily.

[But Joseph, being a just man, etc.] there is no need to rack the word just; to fetch out thence the sense of gentleness or mercy; which many do; for, construing the clauses of the verse separately, the sense will appear clear and soft enough, Joseph, being a just man; could not, would not, endure an adulteress: but yet not willing to make her a public example; being a merciful man, and loving his wife, was minded to put her away privily.

[To make her a public example.] This doth not imply death, but rather public disgrace, to make her public. For it may, not without reason, be inquired, whether she would have been brought to capital punishment, if it had been true that she had conceived by adultery. For although there was a law promulged of punishing adultery with death, Leviticus 10:10; Deuteronomy 22:22; and, in this case, she that was espoused, would be dealt withal after the same manner as it was with her who was become a wife; yet so far was that law modified, that I say not weakened, by the law of giving a bill of divorce, Deuteronomy 24:1; etc., that the husband might not only pardon his adulterous wife, and not compel her to appear before the Sanhedrim, but scarcely could, if he would, put her to death. For why otherwise was the bill of divorce indulged?

Joseph, therefore, endeavours to do nothing here, but what he might, with the full consent both of the law and nation. The adulteress might be put away; she that was espoused could not be put away without a bill of divorce; concerning which thus the Jewish laws: "A woman is espoused three ways; by money, or by a writing, or by being lain with. And being thus espoused, though she were not yet married, nor conducted into the man’s house, yet she is his wife. And if any shall lie with her beside him, he is to be punished with death by the Sanhedrim. And if he himself will put her away, he must have a bill of divorce."

[Put her away privily.] Let the Talmudic tract ’Gittin’ be looked upon, where they are treating of the manner of delivering a bill of divorce to a wife to be put away: among other things, it might be given privately, if the husband so pleased, either into the woman’s hand or bosom, two witnesses only present.

Verse 23

Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

[Behold, a virgin shall be with child.] That the word virgin, in the prophet, denotes an untouched virgin; sufficiently appears from the sense of the place, Isaiah 7:14. King Ahaz there was afraid, lest the enemies that were now upon him might destroy Jerusalem, and utterly consume the house of David. The Lord meets this fear by a signal and most remarkable promise, namely, ’that sooner should a pure virgin bring forth a child, than the family of David perish.’ And the promise yields a double comfort: namely, of Christ hereafter to be born of a virgin; and of their security from the imminent danger of the city and house of David. So that, although that prophecy, of a virgin’s bringing forth a son, should not be fulfilled till many hundreds of years after, yet, at that present time, when the prophecy was made, Ahaz had a certain and notable sign, that the house of David should be safe and secure from the danger that hung over it. As much as if the prophet had said, "Be no so troubled, O Ahaz; does it not seem an impossible thing to thee, and that never will happen, that a pure virgin should become a mother? But I tell thee, a pure virgin shall bring forth a son, before the house of David perish."

Hear this, O unbelieving Jew! And shew us now some remainders of the house of David: or confess this prophecy fulfilled in the Virgin’s bringing forth: or deny that a sign was given, when a sign is given.

In what language Matthew wrote his Gospel.

[Which is, being interpreted.] I. All confess that the Syriac language was the mother-tongue to the Jewish nation dwelling in Judea; and that the Hebrew was not at all understood by the common people may especially appear from two things:

1. That, in the synagogues, when the law and the prophets were read in the original Hebrew, an interpreter was always present to the reader, who rendered into the mother-tongue that which was read, that it might be understood by the common people. Hence those rules of the office of an interpreter, and of some places which were not to be rendered into the mother-tongue.

2. That Jonathan the son of Uzziel, a scholar of Hillel, about the time of Christ’s birth, rendered all the prophets (that is, as the Jews number them, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, the Books of the Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve lesser prophets) into the Chaldee language; that is, into a language much more known to the people than the Hebrew, and more acceptable than the mother-tongue. For if it be asked why he translated them at all, and why he translated not rather into the mother-tongue, which was known to all? And if it be objected concerning St. Matthew and St. Paul, that, writing to the Jews, one his Gospel, the other his Epistle (to the Hebrews), they must have written in the Syriac tongue (if so be they wrote not in Hebrew), that they might be understood by all: -- we answer,

First, It was not without reason that the paraphrast Jonathan translated out of the Hebrew original into the Chaldee tongue, because this tongue was much more known and familiar to all the people than the Hebrew. The holy text had need of an interpreter into a more known tongue, because it was now in a tongue not known at all to the vulgar. For none knew the Hebrew but such as learned it by study. However, therefore, all the Jews inhabiting the land of Canaan, did not so readily understand the Chaldee language as the Syriac, which was their mother-language, yet they much more readily understood that than the Hebrew, which, to the unlearned, was not known at all. Hence it was not without necessity that the prophets were turned into the Chaldee language by Jonathan, and the law, not much after, by Onkelos, that they might a little be understood by the common people, by whom the Hebrew original was not understood at all. We read also that the Book of Job had its Targum in the time of Gamaliel the Elder; that is, Paul’s master.

Secondly, it is no impertinent question, Why Jonathan and Onkelos did not rather translate into the Syriac language, which was the mother-language to all the people, when both they themselves were in Judea, while they were employed about this work, and laboured in it for the use of the Jews that dwelt there? To which we give this double answer; 1. That, by turning it into the Chaldee language, they did a thing that might be of use to both them that dwelt in Judea, and in Babylon also. 2. The Syriac language was not so grateful unto the Jews, who used it for their mother-tongue, as the Chaldee was; as being a language more neat and polite, and the mother-tongue to the brethren in Babylon, and which they that came up out of Babylon, carried thence with them into Judea. You may wonder, reader, when you hear that canon which permits a single man "to say his prayers in any language, when he asks those things that are needful for him, except only the Syriac: While he asketh necessaries for himself, let him use any language but the Syriac." But you will laugh when you hear the reason: "Therefore, by all means, because the angels do not understand the Syriac language."

Whether they distinguish the Syriac language here from the pure Chaldee, is not of great moment solicitously to inquire: we shall only produce these things of the Glosser upon Beracoth, which make to our purpose: -- "There are some (saith he) who say, that that prayer which begins ’sermon,’ is therefore to be made in the Syriac language, because it is a noble prayer, and that deserves the highest praise; and therefore it is framed in the Targumistical language, that the angels may not understand it, and envy it to us," etc. And a little after; "It was the custom to recite that prayer after sermon; and the common people were there present, who understood not the Hebrew language at all; and therefore they appointed it to be framed in the Targumistical language, that it might be understood by all; for this is their tongue."

Mark, the Hebrew was altogether unknown to the common people: no wonder, therefore, if the evangelists and apostles wrote not in Hebrew when there were none who understood things so written, but learned men only.

That also must not be passed over, which, at first sight, seems to hint that the Syriac language was not understood even by learned men. "Samuel the Little, at the point of death, said, Simeon and Ismael to the sword; and all the other people to the spoil: and there shall be very great calamities." And because he spoke these things in the Syriac language, they understood not what he had said. This story you have repeated in the Babylonian Gemara, where the words of the dying man are thus related; Let the Glosser upon the place be the interpreter: "Simeon and Ismael to the sword [that is, Rabban Simeon the prince, and R. Ismael Ben Elisha the high-priest, were slain with the sword], and his fellows to slaughter [that is, R. Akibah and R. Chananiah Ben Teradion were slain by other deaths; namely R. Akibah by iron teeth, and R. Chananiah by burning alive before idols]; and the other people for a prey: and very many calamities shall fall upon the world."

Now where it is said that, "They understood not what he said, because he spake in the Syrian tongue," we also do not easily understand. What! For the Jerusalem doctors not to understand the Chaldee language! For Samuel the Little died before the destruction of the city; and he spake of the death of Rabban Simeon, who perished in the siege of the city; and he spake these things when some of the learnedest Rabbins were by: and yet that they understood not these words, which even a smatterer in the oriental tongues would very easily understand!

Therefore, perhaps, you may beat out the sense of the matter from the words of the author of Juchasin, who saith, He prophesied in the Syriac language; But now, when prophecies were spoken only in the Hebrew language, however they understood the sense of the words, yet they reputed it not for a prophecy, because it was not uttered in the language that was proper for prophetical predictions. But we tarry not here. That which we would have is this, that Matthew wrote not in Hebrew (which is proved sufficiently by what is spoken before), if so be we suppose him to have written in a language vulgarly known and understood; which, certainly, we ought to suppose: not that he, or the other writers of the New Testament, wrote in the Syriac language, unless we suppose them to have written in the ungrateful language of an ungrateful nation, which, certainly, we ought not to suppose. For when the Jewish people were now to be cast off, and to be doomed to eternal cursing, it was very improper, certainly, to extol their language, whether it were the Syriac mother-tongue, or the Chaldee, its cousin language, unto that degree of honour; that it should be the original language of the New Testament. Improper, certainly, it was, to write the Gospel in their tongue, who, above all the inhabitants of the world, most despised and opposed it.

II. Since, therefore, the Gentiles were to be called to the faith, and to embrace the Gospel by the preaching of it, the New Testament was written very congruously in the Gentile language, and in that which, among the Gentile languages, was the most noble; viz. The Greek. Let us see what the Jews say of this language, envious enough against all languages besides their own.

"Rabban Simeon Ben Gamaliel saith, Even concerning the holy books, the wise men permitted not that they should be written in any other language than Greek. R. Abhu saith that R. Jochanan said, The tradition is according to Rabban Simeon; that R. Jochanan said, moreover, Whence is that of Rabban Simeon proved? From thence, that the Scripture saith, ’The Lord shall persuade Japhet, and he shall dwell in the tents of Sem’: the words of Japhet shall be in the tents of Sem": and a little after, God shall persuade Japhet; i.e. The grace of Japhet shall be in the tents of Sem." Where the Gloss speaks thus; "’The grace of Japhet’ is the Greek language; the fairest of those tongues which belonged to the sons of Japhet."

"Rabban Simeon Ben Gamaliel saith, Even concerning the sacred books, they permitted not that they should be written in any other language than Greek. They searched seriously, and found, that the law could not be translated according to what was needful for it, but in Greek." You have this latter clause cut off in Massecheth Sopherim, where this story also is added: "The five elders wrote the law in Greek for Ptolemy the king: and that day was bitter to Israel, as the day wherein the golden calf was made, because the law could not be translated according to what was needful for it." This story of the ’five interpreters’ of the law is worthy of consideration, which you find seldom mentioned, or scarce anywhere else. The tradition next following after this, in the place cited, recites the story of the Seventy. Look at it.

When, therefore, the common use of the Hebrew language had perished, and when the mother Syriac or Chaldee tongue of a cursed nation could not be blessed, our very enemies being judges, no other language could be found, which might be fit to write the (new) divine law, besides the Greek tongue. That this language was scattered, and in use among all the eastern nations almost, and was in a manner the mother tongue, and that it was planted every where by the conquests of Alexander, and the empire of the Greeks, we need not many words to prove; since it is every where to be seen in the historians. The Jews do well near acknowledge it for their mother-tongue even in Judea.

"R. Jochanan of Beth Gubrin said, There are four noble languages which the world useth; the mother-tongue, for singing; the Roman, for war; the Syriac, for mourning; and the Hebrew, for elocution: and there are some who say, the Assyrian for writing." What is that which he calls the mother-tongue? It is very easily answered, the Greek, from those encomiums added to it, mentioned before: and that may more confidently be affirmed from the words of Midras Tillin, respecting this saying of R. Jochanan, and mentioning the Greek language by name. "R. Jochanan said, There are three languages; the Roman, for war; the Greek, for speech; the Assyrian, for prayer." To this also belongs that, that occurs once and again in Babylonian Megillah, In the Greek mother tongue. You have an instance of the thing; "R. Levi, coming to Caesarea, heard some reciting the phylacteries in the Hellenistical language." This is worthy to be marked. At Caesarea flourished the famous schools of the Rabbins. The Rabbins of Caesarea are mentioned in both Talmuds most frequently, and with great praise, but especially in that of Jerusalem. But yet among these, the Greek is used as the mother-tongue, and that in reciting the phylacteries, which, you may well think, above all other things, in Judea were to be said in Hebrew.

In that very Caesarea, Jerome mentions the Hebrew Gospel of St. Matthew, to be laid up in the library of Pamphilus, in these words: "Matthew, who was also called Levi, from a publican made an apostle, first of all in Judea composed the Gospel of Christ in Hebrew letters and words, for their sakes, who were of the circumcision and believed. Which Gospel, who he was that afterward translated it into Greek, it is not sufficiently know. Moreover, that very Hebrew Gospel is reserved to this day in the library at Caesarea, which Pamphilus the martyr, with much care, collected. I also had leave given me by the Nazarenes, who use this book in Berea, a city of Syria, to write it out."

It is not at all to be doubted, that this Gospel was found in Hebrew; but that which deceived the good man was not the very handwriting of Matthew, nor, indeed, did Matthew write the Gospel in that language: but it was turned by somebody out of the original Greek into Hebrew, that so, if possible, the learned Jews might read it. For since they had little kindness for foreign books, that is, heathen books, or such as were written in a language different from their own, which might be illustrated from various canons, concerning this matter; some person converted to the gospel, excited with a good zeal, seems to have translated this Gospel of St. Matthew out of the Greek original into the Hebrew language, that learned men among the Jews, who as yet believed not, might perhaps read it, being now published in their language: which was rejected by them while it remained in a foreign speech. Thus, I suppose, this gospel was written in Greek by St. Matthew, for the sake of those that believed in Judea, and turned into Hebrew by somebody else, for the sake of those that did not believe.

The same is to be resolved concerning the original language of the Epistle to the Hebrews. That Epistle was written to the Jews inhabiting Judea, to whom the Syriac was the mother-tongue; but yet it was writ in Greek, for the reasons above named. For the same reasons, also, the same apostle writ in Greek to the Romans, although in that church there were Romans, to whom it might seem more agreeable to have written in Latin; and there were Jews, to whom it might seem more proper to have written in Syriac.

Bibliographical Information
Lightfoot, John. "Commentary on Matthew 1". "John Lightfoot's Commentary on the Gospels". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jlc/matthew-1.html. 1675.
Ads FreeProfile