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by John Lightfoot
Exercitations upon the Gospel of St. Matthew
His Dear Friends,
Students of Catharine-Hall,
Those very arguments which, first and chiefly, moved me to turn over the Talmudical writings, moved me also to this present work: so that, from the same reasons whence that reading first proceeded, from them proceed also this fruit and benefit of it.
For, first, when all the books of the New Testament were written by Jews, and among Jews, and unto them; and when all the discourses made there, were made in like manner by Jews, and to Jews, and among them; I was always fully persuaded, as of a thing past all doubting, that that Testament could not but everywhere taste of and retain the Jews’ style, idiom, form, and rule of speaking.
And hence, in the second place, I concluded as assuredly that, in the obscurer places of that Testament (which are very many), the best and most natural method of searching out the sense is, to inquire how, and in what sense, those phrases and manners of speech were understood, according to the vulgar and common dialect and opinion of that nation; and how they took them, by whom they were spoken, and by whom they were heard. For it is no matter what we can beat out concerning those manners of speech on the anvil of our own conceit, but what they signified among them, in their ordinary sense and speech. And since this could be found out no other way than by consulting Talmudic authors, who both speak in the vulgar dialect of the Jews, and also handle and reveal all Jewish matters; being induced by these reasons, I applied myself chiefly to the reading these books. I knew, indeed, well enough, that I must certainly wrestle with infinite difficulties, and such as were hardly to be overcome; yet I undervalued them all, and armed myself with a firm purpose, that, if it were possible, I might arrive to a fuller and more deep knowledge and understanding of the style and dialect of the New Testament.
The ill report of those authors, whom all do so very much speak against, may, at first, discourage him that sets upon the reading of their books. The Jews themselves stink in Marcellinus, and their writings stink as much amongst all; and they labour under this I know not what singular misfortune, that, being not read, they displease; and that they are sufficiently reproached by those that have read them, but undergo much more infamy by those that have not.
The almost unconquerable difficulty of the style, the frightful roughness of the language, and the amazing emptiness and sophistry of the matters handled, do torture, vex, and tire him that reads them. They do everywhere abound with trifles in that manner, as though they had no mind to be read; with obscurities and difficulties, as though they had no mind to be understood: so that the reader hath need of patience all along, to enable him to bear both trifling in sense and roughness in expression.
I, indeed, propounded three things to myself while I turned them over, that I might, as much as I could, either under-value those vexations of reading, or soften them, or recreate myself with them, and that I might reap and enjoy fruit from them, if I could, and as much as I could.
I. I resolved with myself to observe those things which seemed to yield some light to the holy Scriptures, but especially either to the phrases, or sentences, or history of the New Testament.
II. To set down such things in my note-books, which carried some mention of certain places in the land of Israel, or afforded some light into the chorography of that land.
III. To note those things which referred to the history of the Jews, whether ecclesiastical, or scholastic, or civil; or which referred to the Christian history, or the history of the rest of the world.
And now, after having viewed and observed the nature, art, matter, and marrow of these authors with as much intention as we could, I cannot paint out, in little, a true and lively character of them better than in these paradoxes and riddles: There are no authors do more affright and vex the reader; and yet there are none who do more entice and delight him. In no writers is greater or equal trifling; and yet in none is greater or so great benefit. The doctrine of the gospel hath no more bitter enemies than they; and yet the text of the gospel hath no more plain interpreters. To say all in a word, to the Jews, their countrymen, they recommend nothing but toys, and destruction, and poison; but Christians, by their skill and industry, may render them most usefully serviceable to their studies, and most eminently tending to the interpretation of the New Testament.
We here offer some specimen of this our reading and our choice, for the reader’s sake, if so it may find acceptance with the reader. We know how exposed to suspicion it is to produce new things; how exposed to hatred the Talmudic writings are; how exposed to both, and to sharp censure also, to produce them in holy things. Therefore, this our more unusual manner of explaining Scripture cannot, upon that very account, but look for a more unusual censure, and become subject to a severer examination. But when the lot is cast, it is too late at this time to desire to avoid the sequel of it; and too much in vain in this place to attempt a defence. If the work and book itself does not carry something with it which may plead its cause, and obtain the reader’s pardon and favour; our oration, or begging Epistle, will little avail to do it. The present work, therefore, is to be exposed and delivered over to its fate and fortune, whatsoever it be. Some there are, we hope, who will give it a milder and more gentle reception; for this very thing, dealing favourably and kindly with us, that we have been intent upon our studies; that we have been intent upon the gospel; and that we have endeavoured after truth: they will show us favour that we followed after it, and, if we have not attained it, they will pity us. But as for the wrinkled forehead, and the stern brow, we are prepared to bear them with all patience, being armed and satisfied with this inward patronage, that "we have endeavoured to profit."
But this work, whatever it be, and whatever fortune it is like to meet with, we would dedicate to you, my very dear Catharine-Hall men, both as a debt, and as a desire. For by this most close bond and tie wherewith we are united, to you is due all that we study, all that we can do; if so be that all is any thing at all. And when we desire to profit all (if we could) which becomes both a student and a Christian to do; by that bond and your own merits, you are the very centre and rest of those desires and wishes. We are sufficiently conscious to ourselves how little or nothing we can do either for the public benefit, or for yours; yet we would make a public profession, before all the world, of our desire and study; and, before you, of our inward and cordial affection.
Let this pledge, therefore, of our love and endearment be laid up by you; and, while we endeavour to give others an account of our hours, let this give you an assurance of our affections. And may it last in Catharine-Hall, even to future ages, as a testimony of service, a monument of love, and a memorial both of me and you!
From my Study,
The Calends of June, 1658.