Commentary of the Old and New Testaments


By Joseph Benson


Although the word ευαγγελιον, here rendered “gospel,” from ευ, “good,” and αγγελια, “a message,” properly denotes “good news, or glad tidings,” and in many parts of the epistles signifies the whole doctrine of Christ, or of the New Covenant, in contradistinction to that of the dispensation of Moses, or the Old Covenant; yet when applied to the narratives written by the four evangelists, the expression properly means the history of the incarnation and life, doctrine and miracles, humiliation and exaltation, sufferings and glory of the Messiah, the Son of God. The reason why this history is termed “good news, or glad tidings,” is because it really contains such, yea, the best news and most joyful tidings that ever reached any human ear; for surely no tidings can be better, or more calculated to give joy to a sinful and guilty world, exposed to the wrath of God, and liable to suffer the vengeance of eternal fire, than that the Son of God, the brightness of the Father’s glory and the express image of his person, the Maker and Lord of all things, and the final Judge of men and angels, came into the world to seek and save lost sinners. Hence, when the angel announced his birth to the shepherds, as is recorded Luke 2:10, his words were, ιδου, ευαγγελιζομαι υμιν χαραν μεγαλην, ητις εσται παντι τω λαω, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” As to the English, or rather Saxon word, “gospel,” it seems originally to mean no more than “God’s spell,” or “God’s word,” and therefore is a very imperfect translation of the Greek expression.

Now the history of these good tidings, which is first offered to our consideration in this volume, termed the New Testament, or New Covenant, is that composed by St. Matthew. Of him we know no more than what we learn in the four gospels, which is very little. He was the son of one Alpheus, and was also called Levi, Mark 2:14. He was of Jewish original, as both his names manifest, and probably of Galilee, as the rest of Christ’s apostles were; but of what city in Galilee, and of which of the tribes of Israel, is not known. Before he was called to be a disciple of Christ, he was a publican, or tax-gatherer to the Romans, an office of bad repute among the Jews, on account of the covetousness and oppressive exactions of those who managed it. St. Matthew’s office is thought to have consisted in collecting the customs imposed on all merchandise that came by the sea of Galilee, and the tribute required from passengers who went by water. And here it was that Christ found him sitting at the receipt of custom, when he first called him to be his disciple. Matthew immediately obeyed the call, and followed Jesus, although, it is probable, not statedly till he had made up and settled his accounts with those by whom he was employed. Living at Capernaum, a place where Christ frequently resided, Matthew might probably both have heard him preach and witnessed the performance of some of his miracles before this his call. Some time, but it seems not long, after this, according to the account given by both Mark and Luke, he entertained Christ and his disciples at a great dinner at his own house, whither he invited his friends and acquaintances, with many of his own profession, intending, probably, not only to take a friendly farewell of them, but to give them an opportunity of seeing and hearing that heavenly Teacher whose doctrine he had found to be the power of God to his salvation. He was soon chosen by Christ to be one of his apostles, (see Matthew 10:3,) and sent, with the other eleven, during the time of Christ’s ministry on earth, to preach to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, in different parts of Judea. And they accordingly went through the towns and villages “preaching the gospel, and healing everywhere,” Matthew 10:6; Luke 9:2-6. Matthew continued to be associated with the other apostles till after our Lord’s ascension, and the day of pentecost following; on which day, doubtless, he received the Holy Ghost with the rest of the disciples, or, as it is expressed Luke 24:49, was “endued with power from on high.” From this time, it seems, for at least eight, if not more years, he preached to the Jews in Judea, and the parts adjacent. Afterward, according to the tradition of the church, he devoted his labours to the propagation of the gospel among the heathen: travelling into Ethiopia, or Abyssinia, and making that country the scene of his apostolical labours; and there, it is said, he sealed the truth with his blood. But of this there is no clear evidence in any of the writings of the primitive fathers, nor that he suffered martyrdom, as some have asserted, in Persia, or elsewhere. Indeed we have no certain information when, where, or how he died.

As to the time when this gospel was composed, it has not been precisely ascertained by the learned. Some have thought it was written as early as A.D. 41, or about the eighth year after Christ’s ascension. Others, and especially some modern critics, have contended that it was not written till about the year 61, or between that and 65. All antiquity, however, seems agreed in the opinion that it was the first gospel that was published; “and in a case of this kind,” says Dr. Campbell, “I should not think it prudent, unless for very strong reasons, to dissent from their verdict. Of the few Christian writers of the first century whose works yet remain, there are in Barnabas, a companion of Paul, Clement of Rome, and Hermas, clear references to some passages of this history. For though the evangelist is not named, and his words are not formally quoted, the attentive reader must be sensible that the author had read the gospel which has uniformly been ascribed to Matthew, and that on some occasions he plainly alludes to it. Very early in the second century, Ignatius, in those epistles which are generally acknowledged to be genuine, and Polycarp, of whom we have no more but a single letter remaining, have manifest allusions to different parts of this gospel. The writers above named are those who are denominated ‘apostolic fathers,’ because they were contemporary with the apostles, and had been their disciples. Their testimony, therefore, serves to show not only their knowledge of this book, but the great and general estimation wherein it was held from the beginning.”

It has been a matter of much debate among the learned, whether this gospel was originally composed in Greek or in Hebrew. But Dr. Campbell seems to have satisfactorily proved it was first written in the latter language. “The first person,” says he, “upon record, who has named Matthew as the writer of this gospel, is Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, in Cesarea, who is said to have been a companion of Polycarp, and a hearer of John. Concerning Matthew, that venerable ancient affirms, that ‘he wrote his gospel in the Hebrew tongue, ( εβραιδι διαλεκτω,) which every one interpreted as he was able.’ See Euseb. Hist. Eccl., lib. 3. cap. 39.” Here we have Papias’s testimony, not only that Matthew was the writer of this gospel, but that he wrote it in Hebrew. “The former of these testimonies,” says Dr. Campbell, “has never, as far as I know, been controverted. On the contrary, it has been confirmed, and is still supported by all subsequent Christian authors who have touched the subject; and the latter, that this evangelist wrote his gospel in Hebrew, had a concurrence equally uniform of all succeeding writers in the church for about 1400 years.” In the last two centuries, however, this point has been strongly contested, particularly by Erasmus, Cardinal Cajetan, Whitby, and several others. “The next authority,” which may be brought, “is that of Irenĉus, bishop of Lyons, in Gaul, who in his youth had been a disciple of Polycarp. He says, in the only book of his extant, that ‘Matthew among the Hebrews wrote a gospel in their own language, ( τη ιδια διαλεκτο αυτων,) while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel at Rome, and founding the church there.’ Euseb. Hist., lib. 5. cap. 8. And in a fragment of the same author, which Grabe and others have published, it is said, ‘The gospel according to Matthew was written to the Jews, for they earnestly desired a Messiah of the posterity of David. Matthew, in order to satisfy them on this point, began his gospel with the genealogy of Jesus.’ The third witness to be adduced is Origen, who flourished in the former part of the third century. Eusebius, in a chapter wherein he especially treats of Origen’s account of the sacred canon, (Hist., lib. 6. cap. 25,) quotes him as saying, ‘As I have learned by tradition concerning the four gospels, which alone are received, without dispute, by the whole church of God under heaven; the first was written by Matthew, once a publican, afterward an apostle of Jesus Christ, who delivered it to the Jewish believers, composed in the Hebrew language, γραμμασιν εβραικοις συντεταγμενον.’ In another place (Comment. in Johan.) he says, ‘We begin with Matthew, who, according to tradition, wrote first, publishing his gospel to the Hebrews, or the believers who were of the circumcision.’ Again, ‘Matthew, writing for the Hebrews, who expected him who was to descend from Abraham and David, says, The lineage of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.’” “It would be endless,” says Dr. Campbell, “to bring authorities. Jerome, Augustine, Epiphanius, Chrysostom, Eusebius, and many others, all attest the same thing, and attest it in such a manner as shows that they knew it to be uncontroverted, and judged it to be incontrovertible. ‘But,’ say some modern disputants, ‘all the witnesses you can produce in support of this fact may, for aught we know, be reducible to one. Irenĉus, perhaps, had his information only from Papias, and Origen from Papias and Irenĉus, and so of all the rest downward, how numerous soever; so that the whole evidence may be at bottom no more than the testimony of Papias!’ But is the positive evidence of witnesses, delivered as of a well-known fact, to be overturned by a mere supposition, a ‘perhaps?’ For that the case was really as they suppose, no shadow of evidence is pretended. Papias is not quoted on this article by Irenĉus, nor is his name mentioned, or his testimony referred to. Nor is the testimony of either urged by Origen. As to Irenĉus, from the early period in which he lived, he had advantages for information little inferior to those of Papias, having been in his younger years well acquainted with Polycarp, the disciple of the Apostle John. Had there then subsisted any account, or opinion, contradictory to the account given by Papias, Irenĉus must certainly have known it, and would probably have mentioned it, either to confirm or to confute it. As the matter stands, we have here a perfect unanimity of the witnesses, not a single contradictory voice; no mention is there, either from those fathers or from any other ancient writer, that ever another account of this matter had been heard of in the church. Shall we then admit a mere modern hypothesis to overturn the foundations of all historic evidence?

“Let it be observed, Papias, in the words quoted from him, attested two things; that Matthew wrote the gospel ascribed to him, and that he wrote it in Hebrew. These two points rest on the same bottom, and are equally, as matters of fact, the subjects of testimony. As to both, the authority of Papias has been equally supported by succeeding authors, and by the concurrent voice of antiquity. Now there has not any thing been advanced to invalidate his testimony, in regard to the latter of these, that may not with equal justice be urged to invalidate his testimony in regard to the former. This may be extended also to other points; for that Mark was the writer of the gospel commonly ascribed to him, rests ultimately on the same authority. How arbitrary then is it, where the evidence is the same, and exposed to the same objections, to admit the one without hesitation, and to reject the other! — I shall conclude the argument with observing, that the truth of the report, that Matthew wrote in Hebrew, is the only plausible account that can be given of the rise of that report. Certain it is, that all the prejudices of the times, particularly among the Greek Christians, were unfavourable to such an opinion. Soon after the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem, the Hebrew Church, distinguished by the name of ‘Nazarene,’ visibly declined every day; the attachment which many of them still retained to the ceremonies of the law; in like manner, the errors of the Ebionites, and other divisions, which arose among them, made them soon be looked upon by the Gentile churches as but half-Christian at the most. That an advantage of this kind would have been so readily conceded to them by the Greeks, in opposition to all their own prejudices, can be attributed only to their full conviction of the fact.

“Having said so much on the external evidence, I shall add but a few words to show, that the account of this matter given by the earliest ecclesiastical writers, is not so destitute as some may think of internal probability. In every thing that concerned the introduction of the new dispensation, a particular attention was for some time shown, and the preference, before every other nation, given to the Jews. Our Lord’s ministry upon the earth was among them only. In the mission of the apostles, during his own life, they were expressly prohibited from going to the Gentiles, or so much as entering any city of the Samaritans, Matthew 10:5; and when, after our Lord’s resurrection, the apostolical commission was greatly enlarged, being extended to all nations throughout the world, still a sort of precedency was reserved for God’s ancient people, and they were commanded to ‘begin’ preaching ‘at Jerusalem,’ Luke 24:46-47. The orders then given were punctually executed. The apostles remained some time in Jerusalem, preaching and performing miracles in the name of the Lord Jesus with wonderful success. See also Acts 13:26. And even after the disciples began to spread their Master’s doctrine through the neighbouring regions, we know, that till the illumination they received in the affair of Cornelius, which was several years after, they confined their teaching to their countrymen the Jews. And even after that memorable event, wherever the apostles came, they appear first to have repaired to the synagogue, if there was a synagogue in the place, and to have addressed themselves to those of the circumcision, and afterward to the Gentiles:” see Acts 13:46; where this matter is set in the strongest light. “Have we not then reason to conclude from the express order, as well as from the example, of our Lord, and from the uniform practice of his disciples, that it was suitable to the will of Providence, in this dispensation of grace, that every advantage should be first offered to the Jews, especially the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and that the gospel which had been first delivered to them by word, both by our Lord himself and by his apostles, should be also first presented to them in writing, in that very dialect in which many of the readers, at the time of the publication, might remember to have heard the same sacred truths, as they came from the mouth of Him who spake as never man spake, the great Oracle of the Father, the interpreter of God?” This dialect, or language, it must be observed, was not what we commonly call Hebrew, or the language of the Old Testament; for this was not then spoken either in Palestine, or anywhere else, being understood only by the learned. But it was what Jerome very properly calls Syro-Chaldaic, having an affinity to both the Syrian and Chaldean language, though much more to the latter than the former. It was, in short, the language which the Jews brought with them from Babylon after the captivity, blended with that of the people whom they found in the land at their return, and in the neighbouring regions. It is this which is invariably called Hebrew in the New Testament. It is true, this merciful dispensation of God to the Jewish Christians, in giving them the first written gospel in their own language, was, in effect, soon frustrated by their defection; but this is only of a piece with what happened in regard to all the other advantages which the Jews enjoyed. “The sacred deposite was first corrupted among them, and afterward it disappeared; for that ‘the gospel according to the Hebrews,’ used by the Nazarenes, (to which, as the original, Jerome sometimes had recourse, and which, he tells us, he had translated into Greek and Latin,) and that the gospel also used by the Ebionites, were, though greatly vitiated and interpolated, the remains of Matthew’s original, will hardly bear a reasonable doubt. Their loss of this gospel proved the prelude to the extinction of that church. But we have reason to be thankful, that what was most valuable in the work is not lost to the Christian community. The version we have in Greek is written with much evangelical simplicity, entirely in the idiom and manner of the apostles.” “And I freely acknowledge,” adds Dr. Campbell, “that if the Hebrew gospel were still extant, such as it was in the days of Jerome, or even of Origen, we should have much more reason to confide in the authenticity of the common Greek translation, than in that of an original, wherewith such unbounded freedoms have been taken.” This translation was undoubtedly made and published at a very early period; but who the translator was we have no knowledge, nor is it likely that, at this distance of time, it should be determined: probably it was the evangelist himself.

St. Matthew appears to be distinguished from the other evangelists: I. By more frequently referring to the prophecies of the Old Testament, and pointing out their fulfilment in Christ, for the conviction of the Jews: and, II. By recording more of our Lord’s parables than are mentioned by the others. He begins his history with an account of the genealogy of Christ; which, agreeably to the custom of the Jews, and to prove Christ’s title to the kingdom of Israel, he gives in the line of his supposed father Joseph, whom he shows to be legally descended from Abraham through David. He then bears witness to his miraculous conception, and relates some circumstances concerning his birth and infancy, particularly his being visited by the wise men from the East, and his flight into Egypt and return. He gives a brief account of the ministry of John the Baptist, and its promising effects, and of the baptism and temptation of Christ, and his entrance on his public ministry. He then proceeds with the history of his miracles and discourses, till he comes to his apprehension by the Jewish rulers, his condemnation, crucifixion, death, and burial, the circumstances of all which he relates at large. He then bears witness to his resurrection, the earthquake attending it, and the appearance of a glorious angel, attesting it to the women, who had come to the sepulchre with a view to anoint his body. Of the many appearances of Christ to his disciples, Matthew only records two; namely, one to these women, and one to all the disciples collected together in Galilee. His history concludes with the important testimony borne by Christ, immediately before his ascension, to the exaltation of his human nature to the highest dignity and power; to which is subjoined his solemn charge to the apostles, and their successors in the ministry, to teach and baptize all nations, and his gracious promise that his presence should be with them to the end of the world.