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Home > Fathers of the Church > The Harmony of the Gospels (Augustine) > Book II, Chapter 12

The Harmony of the Gospels, Book II

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Chapter 12. Concerning the Words Ascribed to John by All the Four Evangelists Respectively.

25. Moreover, Matthew makes up his account of John in the following manner:— Now in those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judæa, and saying, Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is He that is spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. Mark also and Luke agree in presenting this testimony of Isaiah as one referring to John. Luke, indeed, has likewise recorded some other words from the same prophet, which follow those already cited, when he gives his narrative of John the Baptist. The evangelist John, again, mentions that John the Baptist did also personally advance this same testimony of Isaiah regarding himself. And, to a similar effect, Matthew here has given us certain words of John which are unrecorded by the other evangelists. For he speaks of him as preaching in the wilderness of Judæa, and saying, Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; which words of John have been omitted by the others. In what follows, however, in immediate connection with that passage in Matthew's Gospel — namely, the sentence, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight,— the position is ambiguous; and it does not clearly appear whether this is something recited by Matthew in his own person, or rather a continuance of the words spoken by John himself, so as to lead us to understand the whole passage to be the reproduction of John's own utterance, in this way: Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; for this is He that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, and so on. For it ought to create no difficulty against this latter view, that he does not say, For I am He that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, but employs the phraseology, For this is He that was spoken of. For that, indeed, is a mode of speech which the evangelists Matthew and John are in the habit of using in reference to themselves. Thus Matthew has adopted the phrase, He found a man sitting at the receipt of custom, instead of He found me. John, too, says, This is the disciple which testifies of these things, and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true, instead of I am, etc., or, My testimony is true. Yea, our Lord Himself very frequently uses the words, The Son of man, or, The Son of God, instead of saying, I. So, again, He tells us that it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day, instead of saying, It behooved me to suffer. Consequently it is perfectly possible that the clause, For this is He that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, which immediately follows the saying, Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, may be but a continuation of what John the Baptist said of himself; so that only after these words cited from the speaker himself will Matthew's own narrative proceed, being thus resumed: And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and so forth. But if this is the case, then it need not seem wonderful that, when asked what he had to say regarding himself, he should reply, according to the narrative of the evangelist John, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, as he had already spoken in the same terms when enjoining on them the duty of repentance. Accordingly, Matthew goes on to tell us about his attire and his mode of living, and continues his account thus: And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins, and his meat was locusts and wild honey. Mark also gives us this same statement almost in so many words. But the other two evangelists omit it.

26. Matthew then proceeds with his narrative, and says: Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judæa, and all the region round about Jordan, and were baptized by him in Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said to them, O generation of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance; and think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. For now the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which brings not forth good fruit, shall be hewn down and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance; but He that is to come after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: He shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire: whose fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly purge His floor, and gather His wheat into the garner; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. This whole passage is also given by Luke, who ascribes almost the same words to John. And where there is any variation in the words, there is nevertheless no real departure from the sense. Thus, for example, Matthew tells us that John said, And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father, where Luke puts it thus: And begin not to say, We have Abraham to our father. Again, in the former we have the words, I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance; whereas the latter brings in the questions put by the multitudes as to what they should do, and represents John to have replied to them with a statement of good works as the fruits of repentance, — all which is omitted by Matthew. So, when Luke tells us what reply the Baptist made to the people when they were musing in their hearts concerning Him, and thinking whether He were the Christ, he gives us simply the words, I indeed baptize you with water, and does not add the phrase, unto repentance. Further, in Matthew the Baptist says, But he that is to come after me is mightier than I; while in Luke he is exhibited as saying, But one mightier than I comes. In like manner, according to Matthew, he says, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear; but according to the other, his words are, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose. The latter sayings are recorded also by Mark, although he makes no mention of those other matters. For, after noticing his attire and his mode of living, he goes on thus: And preached, saying, There comes one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose: I have baptized you with water, but He shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit. In the notice of the shoes, therefore, he differs from Luke in so far as he has added the words, to stoop down; and in the account of the baptism he differs from both these others in so far as he does not say, and in fire, but only, in the Holy Spirit. For as in Matthew, so also in Luke, the words are the same, and they are given in the same order, He shall baptize you in the Spirit and in fire,— with this single exception, that Luke has not added the adjective Holy, while Matthew has given it thus: in the Holy Spirit and in fire. The statements made by these three are attested by the evangelist John, when he says: John bears witness of Him, and cries, saying, This was He of whom I spoke, He that comes after me is preferred before me; for He was before me. For thus he indicates that the thing was spoken by John at the time at which those other evangelists record him to have uttered the words. Thus, too, he gives us to understand that John was repeating and calling into notice again something which he had already spoken, when he said, This was He of whom I spoke, He that comes after me.

27. If now the question is asked, as to which of the words we are to suppose the most likely to have been the precise words used by John the Baptist, whether those recorded as spoken by him in Matthew's Gospel, or those in Luke's, or those which Mark has introduced, among the few sentences which he mentions to have been uttered by him, while he omits notice of all the rest, it will not be deemed worth while creating any difficulty for oneself in a matter of that kind, by any one who wisely understands that the real requisite in order to get at the knowledge of the truth is just to make sure of the things really meant, whatever may be the precise words in which they happen to be expressed. For although one writer may retain a certain order in the words, and another present a different one, there is surely no real contradiction in that. Nor, again, need there be any antagonism between the two, although one may state what another omits. For it is evident that the evangelists have set forth these matters just in accordance with the recollection each retained of them, and just according as their several predilections prompted them to employ greater brevity or richer detail on certain points, while giving, nevertheless, the same account of the subjects themselves.

28. Thus, too, in what more pertinently concerns the matter in hand, it is sufficiently obvious that, since the truth of the Gospel, conveyed in that word of God which abides eternal and unchangeable above all that is created, but which at the same time has been disseminated throughout the world by the instrumentality of temporal symbols, and by the tongues of men, has possessed itself of the most exalted height of authority, we ought not to suppose that any one of the writers is giving an unreliable account, if, when several persons are recalling some matter either heard or seen by them, they fail to follow the very same plan, or to use the very same words, while describing, nevertheless, the self-same fact. Neither should we indulge such a supposition, although the order of the words may be varied; or although some words may be substituted in place of others, which nevertheless have the same meaning; or although something may be left unsaid, either because it has not occurred to the mind of the recorder, or because it becomes readily intelligible from other statements which are given; or although, among other matters which (may not bear directly on his immediate purpose, but which) he decides on mentioning rather for the sake of the narrative, and in order to preserve the proper order of time, one of them may introduce something which he does not feel called upon to expound as a whole at length, but only to touch upon in part; or although, with the view of illustrating his meaning, and making it thoroughly clear, the person to whom authority is given to compose the narrative makes some additions of his own, not indeed in the subject-matter itself, but in the words by which it is expressed; or although, while retaining a perfectly reliable comprehension of the fact itself, he may not be entirely successful, however he may make that his aim, in calling to mind and reciting anew with the most literal accuracy the very words which he heard on the occasion. Moreover, if any one affirms that the evangelists ought certainly to have had that kind of capacity imparted to them by the power of the Holy Spirit, which would secure them against all variation the one from the other, either in the kind of words, or in their order, or in their number, that person fails to perceive, that just in proportion as the authority of the evangelists [under their existing conditions] is made pre-eminent, the credit of all other men who offer true statements of events ought to have been established on a stronger basis by their instrumentality: so that when several parties happen to narrate the same circumstance, none of them can by any means be rightly charged with untruthfulness if he differs from the other only in such a way as can be defended on the ground of the antecedent example of the evangelists themselves. For as we are not at liberty either to suppose or to say that any one of the evangelists has stated what is false, so it will be apparent that any other writer is as little chargeable with untruth, with whom, in the process of recalling anything for narration, it has fared only in a way similar to that in which it is shown to have fared with those evangelists. And just as it belongs to the highest morality to guard against all that is false, so ought we all the more to be ruled by an authority so eminent, to the effect that we should not suppose ourselves to come upon what must be false, when we find the narratives of any writers differ from each other in the manner in which the records of the evangelists are proved to contain variations. At the same time, in what most seriously concerns the faithfulness of doctrinal teaching, we should also understand that it is not so much in mere words, as rather truth in the facts themselves, that is to be sought and embraced; for as to writers who do not employ precisely the same modes of statement, if they only do not present discrepancies with respect to the facts and the sentiments themselves, we accept them as holding the same position in veracity.

29. With respect, then, to those comparisons which I have instituted between the several narratives of the evangelists, what do these present that must be considered to be of a contradictory order? Are we to regard in this light the circumstance that one of them has given us the words, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear, whereas the others speak of the unloosing of the latchet of the shoe? For here, indeed, the difference seems to be neither in the mere words, nor in the order of the words, nor in any matter of simple phraseology, but in the actual matter of fact, when in the one case the bearing of the shoe is mentioned, and in the other the unloosing of the shoe's latchet. Quite fairly, therefore, may the question be put, as to what it was that John declared himself unworthy to do — whether to bear the shoes, or to unloose the shoe's latchet. For if only the one of these two sentences was uttered by him, then that evangelist will appear to have given the correct narrative who was in a position to record what was said; while the writer who has given the saying in another form, although he may not indeed have offered an [intentionally] false account of it, may at any rate be taken to have made a slip of memory, and will be reckoned thus to have stated one thing instead of another. It is only seemly, however, that no charge of absolute unveracity should be laid against the evangelists, and that, too, not only with regard to that kind of unveracity which comes by the positive telling of what is false, but also with regard to that which arises through forgetfulness. Therefore, if it is pertinent to the matter to deduce one sense from the words to bear the shoes, and another sense from the words to unloose the shoe's latchet, what should one suppose the correct interpretation to be put on the facts, but that John did give utterance to both these sentences, either on two different occasions or in one and the same connection? For he might very well have expressed himself thus, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose, and whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: and then one of the evangelists may have reproduced the one portion of the saying, and the rest of them the other; while, notwithstanding this, all of them have really given a veracious narrative. But further, if, when he spoke of the shoes of the Lord, John meant nothing more than to convey the idea of His supremacy and his own lowliness, then, whichever of the two sayings may have actually been uttered by him, whether that regarding the unloosing of the latchet of the shoes, or that respecting the bearing of the shoes, the self-same sense is still correctly preserved by any writer who, while making mention of the shoes in words of his own, has expressed at the same time the same idea of lowliness, and thus has not made any departure from the real mind [of the person of whom he writes]. It is therefore a useful principle, and one particularly worthy of being borne in mind, when we are speaking of the concord of the evangelists, that there is no divergence [to be supposed] from truth, even when they introduce some saying different from what was actually uttered by the person concerning whom the narrative is given, provided that, notwithstanding this, they set forth as his mind precisely what is also so conveyed by that one among them who reproduces the words as they were literally spoken. For thus we learn the salutary lesson, that our aim should be nothing else than to ascertain what is the mind and intention of the person who speaks.

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Source. Translated by S.D.F. Salmond. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.

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