Click here to advertise on CatholicCulture.org

The MOST Theological Collection: Outline of Christology

"V. Can We Trust the Gospels?"

Options:

MOST Home
Browse by Title
New Search
Table of Contents for this Work

Perrin's Objection: Norman Perrin, famous Professor at the University of Chicago, (in Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, Harper and Row, N. Y. 1967, p. 26) claimed: "No ancient texts reflect the attitudes characteristic of the modern western world." and also (p. 16): "Over and over again, pericopes which have been hitherto accepted as historical reminiscences have been shown [by Form Criticism] to be something quite different... . the gospel materials themselves have forced us to change our mind... . We have been particularly influenced by a consideration of Mark 9:1 and its parallels." We can see from Perrin, and many others like him, that we have a problem to solve. Let us begin by dealing with the evidence that forced Perrin to give up on the Gospels. Then we will ask if it is true that no ancient texts show the attitudes like those of the modern world.

Mark 9. 1 has this: "There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come with power." Mt 16. 28 is the same except that they will see "the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." In Lk 9. 27 they will merely see "the Kingdom of God."

Perrin thinks that Matthew and Mark expect the end of the world soon, while Luke has settled down "to face... the long haul of history."

We begin by noticing that all three Synoptics put this saying just before the Transfiguration - a remarkable thing, for they do not nearly always agree on chronological order. So it could refer to that, and Perrin is not really "forced" to give up on the Gospels.

But there is something much better. The words "Kingdom of God" vary in meaning in different texts. Often enough however they mean the Church in this world and/or the next. For example, after the parable of the wicked tenants, which the Gospel notes that the enemies of Jesus understood, Jesus adds (Mt 21. 43): "The kingdom... will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will yield a rich harvest." It cannot mean God's "reign" will be taken away - He reigns everywhere, all are subject. It means the favored status of the People of God. Yes, God's call still will hold for them - to return to being His people. But they are going to be on the outside, as St. Paul laments in Romans 9 - 11. Again, in the parable of the net (Mt 13. 47-50) the kingdom means the present Church. It adds that at the end, the wicked will be thrown out of the Church or Kingdom. If it meant reign - there would be no wicked persons included, for they reject the reign of God. The picture is similar with the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Mt 25. 1 - 13, and in the parable of the weeds in the wheat in Mt 13. 24-30, and in the parable of the mustard seed in Mt 13. 31. In the first edition of Jerome Biblical Commentary, (II, p. 783) David Stanley thinks Mk 9. 1 refers to the coming of the kingdom, the Church, with power, that is, with miracles, after Pentecost. (For the Greek word for power is dynamis, which in the plural means displays of power, i.e., miracles.) John L. McKenzie (p. 16) writes: "The reign of God in Mt is clearly identified with the community of the disciples."

So there is no problem, Perrin is not forced: the text in Mk can readily mean they will not die until they see the Church being established after Pentecost with power, with miracles. Matthew mentions that the Son of Man will visit His Church. This is the concept of the Hebrew paqad, caring for it, and need not mean at the end: He is providing for His Church in all times. And of course Luke's version, that they will see the Kingdom, is no problem at all.

Form Criticism: Because of the objection from Perrin on the basis of Form Criticism, we should review it briefly. Form criticism starts with the premise that the Gospels evolved in three stages: (1) The actions and words of Jesus, of course, adapted to His audience; (2) The way the Apostles and the first generation preached these things, again, with adaptation of wording to the current audience (so that they might not use the same words as Jesus, but would carefully keep the sense); (3) Some individuals within the Church, under inspiration, wrote down some part of that original preaching: this became the Gospels. Therefore: The Gospels are simply part of the basic ongoing teaching of the Church, written down under inspiration. In that sense, the Church has something more basic than even the Gospels.

These claims are obviously true. Next, Form Criticism would like to try to determine at which of the three stages our present text took its present form, in the hope this will shed some light. The general idea is good. And from it we see that a given passage may be made up of several once independent units, for the original tradition may have had, separately, accounts of individual things Jesus did or said. But the problem is: How to determine where the boundaries of the units lie?

The critics turn to two means: First, what is the literary genre or pattern of each unit. That will help to mark off the borders. Second, what is the Sitz-im-Leben, or original life situation of each passage. For different situations may call for different patterns of writing.

Here is a concrete example of Form Critical work. Reginald H. Fuller (in: The Foundations of New Testament Christology, Chas. Scribner's Sons, NY, 1965, p. 109) thinks there are four units in Mk 8. 29-33, in which Jesus, at Caesarea Philippi, after asking what people in general were saying about Him, then asked the Apostles: (1) Who do you say that I am? Peter replies that He is the Messiah, the son of God; (2) Jesus tells them to keep quiet about it; (3) He then predicts His own death and resurrection (to correct their false notions about the Messiah), and Peter objects to His death; (4) "Get behind me, satan". Fuller thought that units 2 and 3 were invented by the Church: Jesus had not really taught that He was the Messiah, but the Church later, being embarrassed, invented scenes in which the question came up, but He told people to keep quiet about it. As to the predictions of His death and resurrection, the Church invented those too, for when He really died and rose, the Apostles acted as if they had never heard any such thing.

If in this way the critics could eliminate units 2 and 3 (they cannot), then they say we could read the truth minus the fakery: Jesus asks the Apostles who they say He is. "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Jesus angrily rejects it: "Get behind me, satan."

We can easily refute the attempts to eliminate units 2 and 3: for details, see Wm. Most, The Consciousness of Christ, (Front Royal, Va. 1980, pp. 202-06). We add that the same Fuller today has given up on Form Criticism, and says it is "bankrupt" (in "St. Luke's Journal of Theology, 23, 1980, p. 96). Even R. Brown admits (in: R. Brown and J. Meir, Antioch and Rome, Paulist, 1983, pp. 199-200) that we do not really know for certain Mark's purpose in writing, nor can we be sure in distinguishing what comes from Mark's editing, and what comes from earlier tradition. (Redaction Criticism studies the editorial work of each Evangelist, while Form Criticism studies the first two of the three stages mentioned above).

Besides the troubles just mentioned, the critics inject massive subjectivity by claiming that the primitive community - they are apt to pass by the Apostles without much if any mention - was "creative." That is, it just faked things. Thus R. Bultmann, who first applied Form Criticism to the New Testament, said (History of the Synoptic Tradition, tr. John Marsh, Harper & Row, NY, 1963, p. 40. n. 2: "The Controversy Dialogues as we have them are... creations of the Church." Briefly, it would be something like this: Group A is arguing with Group B. Group A has no text from Jesus to support their claim, so they make one up. Group B does the same. Again, the same Bultmann said (ibid. p. 47),"Naturally enough, our judgment will not be made in terms of objective criteria, but will depend on taste and discrimination." No wonder many Form Critics now declare the method bankrupt. Really, it can be useful, but at first so many did not see its limitations, and acted as if they had "assured results of science" as they called them. They built one insecure thing on top of another, like a house of cards. Now some, not all, are waking up, and throwing out the baby with the bath.

John P. Meier, in A Marginal Jew (Doubleday, 1991) repeatedly charges creativity, yet never gives a shred of evidence that such things happened, though he is most meticulous in demanding evidence for so many other things. He seeingly thinks the Christians were not interested in the truth even though that was vital for their own eternal fate.

They also used much the criterion of "Double dissimilarity or irreductibilty." That is, if an idea is dissimilar to the emphases of both ancient Judaism and early Christianity, we may think it comes from Jesus Himself."

Form Critical Claims of Joseph Fitzmyer: In his Christological Catechism (Paulist, 1982, p. 128, italics his) we read: "... the Biblical Commission calmly and frankly admitted that what is contained in the Gospels as we have them today is not the record of the words and deeds of Jesus in the first stage of the tradition, nor even the form in which they were preached in the second stage, but only the form compiled and edited by the evangelists... . neither the Church... nor theologians... have ever taught that the necessary formal effect of inspiration is historicity. The consequence of inspiration is inerrancy in affirmation, i.e., immunity from error in what is affirmed or taught in the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation (see Dei verbum §11)".

COMMENTS: 1. The part in italics is not strictly wrong, but very misleading. It can give the impression that we are not really sure what Jesus did or taught. What the Biblical Commission actually said is this (my translation from the Latin as found in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 25, July 1964, pp. 299-304. Their English translation is on pp. 305-12): "For the fact that the Evangelists report the words or deeds of the Lord in different order does not affect at all the truth of the narrative, for they keep the sense while reporting His statements, not to the letter, but in different ways." We had said the same in describing the three stages above.

2. The rest of the quotation form Fitzmyer seems to reflect an error rather common today, of claiming that Vatican II (DV §11) allows us to think there are errors in Scripture in science, history and even religion - only things needed for salvation are inerrant. This is not at all true, as we can see, for example, from the fact that the Council itself added a footnote on this very passage, referring us to several earlier Magisterium texts which insist there is no error of any kind in Scripture. For further data on this, and on the Instruction of 1964 in general, cf. Wm. G. Most, Free From All Error, Libertyville, Il, 1985, 1990, chapters 7, 20, 21, and 22. The 1964 Instruction, while admitting that Form Criticism is legitimate and at times helpful, warns: "Certain followers of this method, led astray by the prejudices of rationalism, reject the existence of a supernatural order and the intervention of a personal God in the world as taught by revelation properly so called, and the possibility and actual existence of miracles and prophecies. Others start with a false notion of faith, as if faith does not care about historical truth or is even incompatible with it. Others deny, as it were in advance, the historical value and character of the documents of revelation. Others, finally, think little of the authority of the Apostles as witnesses of Christ, and of their role and influence on the primitive community, while they extol the creative power of this community. All these things are not only opposed to Catholic doctrine but also lack a scientific foundation, and are foreign to the right principles of historical method."

NB. What we have been saying about Form Criticism is only preliminary. The really basic way to establish the historicity of the Gospels is to come next.

Literary Genre in general: Genre means a pattern of writing. For example, if we today read a modern historical novel about the Civil war, we expect a mixture of history and fiction. The main line of the story will be history, and the background descriptions will fit. But there will be fill-ins, such as word for word discussions between important characters of the period. We do not, because of the fictional elements, charge the writer with ignorance or deception. No, that is the way such a novel is supposed to be written, and understood. There are as it were rules by which we read it. The key word is assert or claim. The writer claims and asserts that the main line is historical, but he does not assert that the fill-ins are historical.

There are many other genres in English, mostly inherited from Greece and Rome with rather little change. So long as we read things in that great culture stream, our natural adjustments, made since we are natives of this culture, do well for us. But if we move into a very different culture, such as ancient Semitic, then we may not take things for granted. Pope Pius XII, in his Encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu, of 1943, told us we must study to find what genres were in use in the ancient Near East, and use this knowledge to help understand Scripture.

We are beginning our search with the Gospels, but at the start, we will not look on them as sacred or inspired - that is to be established only later on. We will look at them as ancient documents, and then put them through the kinds of checking we use on other ancient documents. First of all we need to know the genre of the Gospels.

There is much help from studying what the ancient Greeks and Romans thought they were doing or aimed to do when they wrote history. As we shall see, N. Perrin shows no knowledge of the statements of the ancient historians - only that way could he claim that no ancient texts show an attitude like modern things.

Ancient Historians on History:

Herodotus, Preface 1: "These are the researches (historiai) of Herodotus of Halicarnassus... in the hope of... preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done." 7. 152: "... my duty is to report all that is said, but I am not obliged to believe it all alike - a remark which may be understood to apply to my whole History."

Thucydides 1. 22: ". . I have not ventured to speak from any chance information... I have described nothing but what I either saw myself, or learned from others from whom I made the most careful and specific inquiry." 5. 26:" I took great pains to make out the exact truth."

Polybius 3. 59: [the historian is obliged] "... to give his own first allegiance to the truth... and to report to us the whole truth and nothing but the truth. As a result, accurate historical research into the subjects just mentioned was not so much difficult as it was impossible in times past... . But in modern times, the empire of Alexander in Asia and the supremacy of Rome in other places have opened up almost the entire world to sea or land travel... ." 1. 1: "The knowledge of past events is the supreme corrective of human nature."

Diodorus: 1. 1-5: "I have devoted 30 years to the task, during which I have incurred considerable hardships and danger in making extensive travels... . I have been able to obtain accurate information of all the events of the Roman dominion from the national records which have been preserved from an early date... . I have not tried to get a definite chronology of events before the Trojan War, since no trustworthy table of dates for this time has come to my hands." 1. 1: "It is a blessing to be given a chance to improve ourselves by taking a warning from the mistakes of others."

Dionysius of Halicarnassus 1. 1-8: "Part of my information has been obtained orally from the chief Roman educated men with whom I have come into personal contact, and part from studying the historical works which have the highest reputation among the Romans themselves... ."

Flavius Josephus: Jewish War 1. 1-16: "In describing the performances of both sides I will keep a strict objectivity. Reply to Apion 1. 1-59: "My own record of the war as a whole and of the incidental details is correct, for I was a firsthand witness of all the events."

Livy 7. 6. 6: [On the problem of how the Lacus Curtius got its name}."I would make every effort to find out the truth if there were a path that would lead me to it; as things are, one must hold to tradition when antiquity makes certainty impossible." Preface 6: "Events before the city was founded... are more in the nature of fables than of reliable historical evidence. It is not my intention to bother either to approve or to refute them."

Tacitus, Annals 1. 1 "I intend to hand down a few of the last events about Augustus, and then the principate of Tiberius and other things, without anger or partisanship. I am far from having reason for those."

COMMENTS: 1. We can see the purpose in mind: these writers want to record what really happened, the truth. They also, as is clear from the comments cited, especially those from Polybius and Diodorus, that they also want to teach lessons. Modern writers favor both, with less stress on explicitly teaching lessons. In other words, both ancient and modern writers of history want facts plus interpretations.

2. Ancient writers also liked to include speeches at suitable points. Thucydides in 1. 22 said of this:" As to the speeches which were made either before or during the [Peloponnesian] war, it was hard for me, and for others who reported them to me, to recollect the exact words. I have therefore put into the mouth of each speaker the sentiments proper to the occasion, expressed as I thought he would be likely to express them, while at the same time I tried, as nearly as I could, to give the general sense of what was actually said." In other words, Thucydides would be careful to get the sense, but not the words, when he could get the reports on the sense. If he could not get even the sense, he would write comments he thought suitable for the occasion.

3. Such were the ideals, the notion of the genre, held by ancient Greek and Roman historians. How well then were able to live up to the ideal is a different matter. They did not always have the means to get at the facts, as we see some of them admitting. Modern historians however would give a high rating for factuality to several of these, chiefly Thucydides, Polybius and Tacitus. (As to the comment of Tacitus that he wanted to write without anger or partisanship, some accuse him of bias against some figures, e.g., Tiberius. But even so, the same commentators admit his accuracy in the facts he reports - the problem is in comments on the facts.

Genre of the Gospels: 1. We have seen what ideals the writers of the ancient world pursued in writing history: facts plus interpretations. We would expect the Gospel writers in general to try also for facts, plus interpretations for the sake of faith. For two reasons, they would try harder: 1) They believed their eternal fate depended on the facts about Jesus. 2) Jewish writers held the same ideals as the Greeks and Romans, as we see from the remarks of Josephus cited above. But in addition, The Jews had a better conception of history than did the Greeks and Romans, in that these latter commonly held that everything moves in great cycles. Thus in an important study, Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, (tr. W. R. Trask, Princeton, 1954, pp. 104, 143) we read: "The Hebrews were the first to discover the meaning of history as the epiphany [manifestation] of God, and this concept, as we should expect, was taken up and amplified by Christianity... . For Christianity, time is real because it has a meaning - the Redemption... . The development of history is thus governed and oriented by a unique fact, a fact which stands entirely alone."

2. Luke's Gospel in particular shows great care. In the opening lines he says he consulted written accounts and eyewitnesses. My study, "Did St. Luke Imitate the Septuagint?" in Journal for Study of the New Testament, July, 1982, pp. 30-41 studied Luke's use of a special Semitism, the apodotic kai and found that he certainly did not imitate the Septuagint, as is often said, but instead he translated slavishly from sources in two kinds of Hebrew. (A summary of the article is found in Catholic Apologetics Today, Chapter 9).

The Problem of Historicism: Before going further, we must face the challenge of Historicism. Unfortunately, not all use this word in the same sense today. We mean it in the sense a history professor would have in mind, that is, the belief that every person and every event is so close to unique that we have little in common with the past, and so cannot be sure of understanding it. This of course undermines all historical writing, and, obviously, undermines the possibility of getting facts from the Gospels.

Historicism developed as a reaction to the excesses of such writers as Bossuet, who in his Discours sur l'histoire universelle (1681) said that everything in history is a contrivance of the higher wisdom of God. Some men of the so -called "Enlightenment", while rejecting the influence of God, still thought that history should be a science parallel to the experimental sciences, that is, it should include hypotheses and laws. By knowing these, people could practically control their own fate. Some prominent proponents were Etienne Condillac (1715-80), John S. Mill (1806-73) and Auguste Comte (1798-1857).

G. Vico in his Scienza Nuova (3d ed. 1744) prepared the way for Historicism. He said that to really know something, one must have made it. Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) in his Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit held similar views, and said each society has its own unique lifestyle, which subtly but inescapably determines the mentalities of those born in it.

Not strangely, some saw the application of these ideas even to the past documents of the Church. Thus John W. O'Malley, S. J. , in "Reform, Historical Consciousness and Vatican II's Aggiornamento" in Theological Studies 32 , 1971, pp. 596-98 wrote (emphasis added): "The historian... becomes deeply aware of the discontinuity in the past, and he is forced to remove from his consideration any over-arching divine plan. Indeed, historicism was born out of disillusionment with attempts to discover and expose such plans whether in their sacral or secularized forms... . every person, event and document of the past is the product of very specific and unrepeatable contingencies... . By refusing to consider them as products of providence or as inevitable links in a preordained chain of historical progress, decline, or development, we deprive them of all absolute character. We relativize them... . contemporary philosophy of history relativizes the past and thus neutralizes it... . we are freed from the past... . we can with truth speak of a 'changing' or even a 'new' past... . if the past imposes no pattern upon us, we are free to try to create the future."

The same attitude at least seems to appear in the words of Avery Dulles, S. J. (The Survival of Dogma, NY 1971, p. 164): "It is far from obvious that the dogmas of the Church, having been 'revealed by God himself, ' cannot be revised by the Church... . Our findings suggest that the Catholic dogmas as presently formulated and understood may be significantly changed... ."

The Answer to Historicism: 1. It is not strictly true that every person and every event is close to unique. Many sciences can make very broad generalizations, which do have some exceptions, but yet they hold widely, e. g, medicine, psychology, sociology, anthropology. Yes, there is a measure of uniqueness in fingerprints, and in the DNA patterns, but it is still true that there are the large and broadly reaching patterns.

2. We must distinguish between simple and complex facts, and between facts and interpretations.

Complex facts are those that are entwined with an ancient culture, so that we would need to as it were reconstitute that culture to fully understand. Even then, needed facts can be recovered at least in some cases, cf. for example my article, "A Biblical Theology of Redemption in a Covenant Framework" in CBQ 1967, pp. 1-19, in which the concept of hesed (not entirely unknown otherwise) is carefully recovered and worked out. But not all acts are so entwined, e. g, although the notion of prophet is complex within Hebrew culture, the notion of a messenger is understandable in all cultures.

The charge is made that "there is no such thing as an uninterpreted account." It means that bias is apt to get into account. There is some truth in this, but it is not true in all types of cases. For example, if someone sees a leper stand before Jesus asking to be cured, and Jesus says: "I do will it: be cured: and the man is cured - there is no opening for bias. One's eyes and ears report simply what has happened.

Again even in more complicated instances in history we can tell the difference between facts and interpretations. For example, the fine Roman historian, Tacitus, says in his Annals 1. 2 that Augustus "seduced the army with bonuses, and his cheap food policy was a successful bait for civilians."-- We can see that he is interpreting the motives of Augustus. We can even see that the language is loaded with the words "seduced" and "bait" which prejudge the case. But Tacitus also reports (Annals 1. 7-8) that: "At the senate's first meeting [after the death of Augustus] he [Tiberius] allowed no business to be discussed except the funeral of Augustus." -- This is a clearly a simple factual report. Anyone there could see and hear that that was the one piece of business. But Tacitus also speculates on the motives of Tiberius, "he only showed signs of hesitation when he addressed the senate. This was chiefly because of Germanicus, who was extremely popular... . Tiberius was afraid Germanicus [who commanded a large army] might prefer the throne to the prospect of it." - Here is a clear case of interpretation.

So if we take the time to sort things out, we can at least in many cases make the needed distinctions, and for certain, as we shall see later, we can locate a few simple, uncomplex facts about Jesus, that are such that there is no room for bias in the report, and yet they amply suffice for building the bases we need.

A Note on Ricoeur and Gadamer: Ideas very similar to those we saw in Historicism have been proposed by Paul Riceour, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth, TX U. 1976) and H. G. Gadamer, Truth and Method (Seabury, 1975). They both hold that when a manuscript leaves the author's hand it takes on a new life of its own. We neither know nor care much what the author meant: we look at the new meanings, which are many.

Reply: By the use of the method just outlined, plus normal exegetical methods, we can find out what the author meant. The proposal of Riceour is total subjectivism.

A very similar development is found in "Deconstruction", favored by some professors of literature. They would argue that all writing can be reduced to an arbitrary sequence of linguistic signs or words, whose meanings have no relationship to the author's intention or to the world that lies beyond the text. Thus for example, Hamlet would be an impersonal skein of linguistic codes and conventions, the interpretation of which is open to anyone who cares to 'deconstruct' the text and 'complete' it by creating something totally different." The reply is the same. We notice the word "arbitrary". No, usage determines the meaning of the signs and sounds, and people in general can and do recognize them.

The most prominent Deconstructionist is Jacques Derrida. His theory rests on the bases just mentioned and also on the nihilistic philosophy of Nietzsche which denies the possibility of discovering truth.

Could the Gospel Writers get the needed facts?: Yes, there were several means open to them. (We recall that the usual estimates for dates of Matthew and Luke are 80 - 90 A.D., while it is thought Mark wrote a bit before 70. The dates 80 - 90 rest on slim conjectures, as we shall see. But even if we allow the estimates to stand, we can still find ample means for the Evangelists to get information).

1) Pope Clement I, who probably became Pope about 92 AD, says in his letter to Corinth (5. 1), written probably in 95 AD, that Peter and Paul were of his own generation. Now unless we think Clement became Pope as a teenager, he should have been alive and around in Rome when Peter and Paul were there and preaching. For these two Saints died around 65 or 66 A.D. Hence the letter to Corinth was only 30 years later. And of course there would be many others alive in the period 80 - 90 besides Clement who had heard Peter and Paul.

2) St. Polycarp, burned in 156 AD at age 86, was Bishop at Smyrna, and according to a letter to Florinus from St. Irenaeus (preserved in Eusebius, Church History, 5. 20-5-7) used to tell in his homilies what he had heard from St. John. St. Irenaeus later recalled what was said. Smyrna was not far from Ephesus, where, according to a strong tradition, St. John spent his last years. E also have a letter of Polycarp to Philippi, which gives much information on Christianity.

3) St Ignatius of Antioch, eaten by the beasts at Rome probably in 107, was one of the first, probably the second bishop of Antioch, the very city where St. Peter had once worked, and where Christians first were given the name Christian (Acts 11. 26). We have seven letters of his, written on the way to Rome, which contain much information on Christian doctrine.

4) Quadratus, earliest of the Greek apologists, wrote an apology about 123 AD, in which he reports that some persons were still alive in his day who had been cured by Christ or raised from the dead by Him. They would be excellent sources of data. Even if they were not still alive in 123, yet they surely would have been around in the period 80-90 where most scholars place the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (they put Mark a bit before 70). The text of Quadratus we have is found in Eusebius, Church History 4. 3. 1-2.

5) Jesus died around 30 or 33 AD, a man in his teenage then would have to be about 65 by 80. A.D., the start of the period 80-90 where most scholars date Matthew and Luke (Mark as we said is dated before 70).

The Dates and Authors of the Gospels: We have just seen that even according to the latest estimates, Mark was written a bit before 70, Matthew and Luke between 80 and 90 -- a period when, as we have just shown, information on Jesus would have been easy to get. Therefore we do not strictly need to know the names of the writers, though we do have fine evidence, as we shall soon see.

About the dates: The reason for putting Mark early is the fact that Mark 13. 14 is not too clear. Therefore, some say, if it had been written after the fall of Jerusalem, Mark would have clarified it. The reasons for the later dates of Matthew and Luke are:1) They both depended on Mark. - But this is not at all proved, and not a few good scholars today disagree, e.g., W. R. Farmer, The Synoptic Problem (Dillsboro, N. C. 1976); Bernard Orchard, Matthew, Luke and Mark (Manchester, 1977); E. P. Sanders, The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition (Cambridge, 1969); John M. Rist, On the Independence of Matthew and Mark (Cambridge, 1978); Hans-Herbert Stoldt, History and Criticism of the Marcan Hypothesis (Edinburgh, 1980); C. S. Mann, Mark (Anchor Bible, Doubleday, 1986, p. 75). Still further, Luke often adds Semitisms which Mark does not have, and sometimes omits Semitisms which Mark does have. Luke very often uses an Aramaic type paraphrase with a form of the verb to be plus a participle instead of an imperfect indicative: of all the instances of this structure in the New Testament, Luke has 50%, of which there are 30 examples in his Gospel and 24 in Acts. Yet, where this structure occurs in Mark, Luke usually avoids it - though he does use it in places that he has parallel to Mark, but in which Mark does not use it (data from M. Zerwick, Graecitas Biblica, ed. 4, Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, Romae §361. O. L. Cope, in Matthew, a Scribe Trained for the Kingdom of Heaven (CBQ Monograph Series 5, 1976, p. 12) writes: "Matthew's use of Mark is hypothetical."

A second reason proposed for late dating of Matthew and Luke is the relative clarity of the predictions of the fall of Jerusalem. Luke even mentions an army surrounding the city. - But this reason is very poor. In all ancient sieges an army would surround a city.

A further proposed reason is this: Matthew shows no knowledge of the debate in which St. Paul became so involved over the law. So, the claim goes, the debate must have been settled by the time Matthew wrote. Paul insisted we are free from the law; but Matthew says (5. 17) Jesus said the law would never pass away: He had come not to destroy but to fulfill. - Again, the argument does not hold. Matthew had a different purpose in writing, to give a basic account of the life and teachings of Jesus. Further, St. Paul did not really undermine the law. He meant that keeping the law does not earn salvation. He insists many times over that if we violate the law, we will not reach heaven: 1 Cor 6. 9-10; Gal 5. 19-21; Eph 5. 5; Rom 3. 31. He sums up his idea in Romans 6. 23: "The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is everlasting life." So everlasting life is a free gift, but hell is earned. Similarly Jesus said we must be like little children, who do not think they earn the love and care of their parents, but know well then can earn punishment.

On the other hand, it is really inexplicable how the Evangelists could have omitted all mention of the fact that the fall of Jerusalem had happened, if they wrote after it -- it was so traumatic an event, and especially Matthew so loves to point out fulfillment of prophecies.

Ancient Testimonies on Authorship: Even though we do not need to know the names of the authors - for it is enough to know the Gospels were written when facts about Jesus could readily be had, and that the writers believed their eternity depended on the truth about Jesus and so would be very careful - yet we will give some of the ancient testimonies about the authors.

Papias: He was Bishop of Hierapolis, who, around 130 A.D. wrote Exegesis of the Lord's Sayings. Papias says he inquired from those who had heard the Apostles and disciples of the Lord, especially a presbyter John, who is clearly not the Apostle John, but seems to have lived about the same time as the Apostle. We depend on quotations given by Eusebius, Church History 3. 39 for the words of Papias: "Mark, the interpreter of Peter, diligently wrote down whatever he had entrusted to memory, not however, in order. For he had not heard the Lord nor followed Him but later he was, as I said, a hearer of Peter, who according to need gave teachings, but had no intention of giving a connected account of the sayings of the Lord. Mark, then, made no mistake, but wrote down things as he remembered. He aimed at one thing, that he would omit none of the things he had heard... . Matthew wrote the sayings of the Lord in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them according as he was able."

COMMENTS: 1. Eusebius criticizes Papias as "a man of small intelligence" But the remark is unjustified, for we notice Eusebius said this because Papias held the millennium theory -- some other very intelligent Fathers held it, e.g., St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus. It is a mistake to hold that the theory, but one that is understandable, given the obscurity the meaning of Apocalypse 20.

2. At a colloquium on the relationships among the Gospels at Trinity University at San Antonio in 1977, George A. Kennedy, Paddison Professor of Classics at the University of North Carolina, in replying to a question about his use of Papias as a credible source, said,"He had studied carefully the second-century evidence for the tradition that Mark's Gospels reflects directly reminiscences of Peter, and had concluded that he would be thoroughly delighted to find such solid evidence for some other ancient historical tradition." (Cited from: Patrick Henry, New Directions in New Testament Study, Westminster, Phila. 1979, pp. 33-34.

3. Martin Hengel, highly respected Professor of the New Testament at the University of Tübingen, ( from which so many leftish positions on Scripture have come) in Studies in the Gospel of Mark (tr. John Bowden, Fortress, Philadelphia, 1985, pp. 47 - 50, insistently defends the tradition that St. Mark followed St. Peter and wrote from his preaching.

Anti-Marcionite Prologues: "Mark, who was called stumpfingered, was the interpreter of Peter. After the departure of Peter, he wrote a Gospel in Italy... . Luke of Antioch in Syria, a physician, having become a disciple of the apostles, and later having followed Paul until his martyrdom... after the Gospels had been written - by Matthew in Judea, by Mark in Italy - moved by the Holy Spirit, wrote this Gospel in Achaia... with great care, for gentile believers."

COMMENTS: 1. Probable date, at least for that on Mark, is between 160 and 180 AD. The detail that Mark was "stumpfingered" is remarkable. A later forger would be unlikely to know such a detail, and is unlikely to have invented so odd and uncomplimentary a point.

2. Some manuscripts add after the lines on Mark: "When Peter heard it, he approved, and gave it to the Church to be read by his authority." This does not agree with St. Irenaeus 3. 1. 1, which we shall see below, which says that Mark wrote after the exodon of Peter -- which means departure, probably after his death. Since St. Irenaeus had two likely contacts in addition to the work of Papias - he had been to Rome, and he had listened to St. Polycarp tell his reminiscences of St. John - it is more likely that Irenaeus is right on the point. However, both St. Irenaeus and the Prologues definitely agree that Mark wrote from the preaching of Peter, regardless of the timing. Origen, to be cited below, also agrees that Mark wrote from the preaching of Peter.

Muratorian Fragment: "The third book of the Gospels is according to Luke. Luke that physician, after the ascension of Christ, when Paul had taken him along as a companion on the journeys, wrote in his own name. He however had not seen the Lord in the flesh, and so, he began to speak, starting with the birth of John, according as he was able."

COMMENTS: This is a fragmentary list, in Latin, of the books of the New Testament, discovered in Milan in 1740 by L. A. Muratori. It dates probably from between 155 and 200 AD. The first part is missing, and so the fragment begins with an incomplete sentence: "... at which he was present and so he wrote." This most likely refers to Mark being present at the preaching of Peter and writing from it.

St. Irenaeus: In his Against Heresies 3. 1. 1, he gives us a valuable testimony: "Matthew among the Hebrews brought forth in their own language, a written Gospel, while Peter and Paul at Rome were preaching and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down in writing the things preached by Peter. And Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by him. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who had reclined on His breast, gave forth the Gospel while living at Ephesus in Asia."

Tertullian, writing about 207 A.D. says (Against Marcion 4. 2. 2): "Of the Apostles, John and Matthew instill the faith in us; of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it."

COMMENTS: Some have tried to say these witness are not worth much, that Papias was unrealiable, and all others copied from him. We have already answered the charge against Papias. As to the claim all copied from one, there is no proof. On the contrary, the Anti-Marcionite Prologue has facts on Luke, while Papias, in what has come down to us, has nothing. Also the Anti-Marcionite Prologue has an odd detail on Mark, that he was stumpfingered, which Papias seems to lack. St. Irenaeus too has facts not found in Papias. For example, that Matthew wrote while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome. Also, as we said above , St. Irenaeus had listened to St. Polycarp who knew St. John personally, and Irenaeus had visited Rome at least once, where he could easily have gathered information, especially on Mark recording Peter's preaching there.

Origen, Commentary on Matthew 1. : "... having learned by tradition about the four Gospels, that alone are beyond question in the Church of God under heaven, that the one according to Matthew, the former tax collector was written first, and given to believers from Judaism, composed in the Hebrew letters; second, that according to Mark, as Peter instructed, whom Peter acknowledged as his son in the catholic Epistle saying , 'the [Church] that is in Babylon, elect, and Mark my son, ' and the third, that according to Luke who made the Gospel for the gentiles, praised by Paul."

COMMENTS: In 2 Cor 8. 18 we read: "We have sent also with him the brother, whose praise is in the Gospel throughout all the churches; not only that, but he was appointed by the churches as a companion of our travels for this grace." Commentators are not agreed on who is meant, but it could well be Luke. Origen seems to mean Luke. The RSV unfortunately says his praise is in "preaching" the Gospel. There is no word for preaching in the Greek, and it would be different from writing a Gospel. We have this text of Origen thanks to Eusebius 6. 25. 3-6. It was probably written about 244 AD.

To sum up: We have a unanimous tradition, reaching back to around 100 A.D. that Mark wrote a Gospel based on Peter's preaching with whom he had worked, that Luke was a physician from Antioch, who traveled often with St. Paul, and based his Gospel on the preaching of St. Paul. St. Paul in turn insists strongly in the first chapter of Galatians that he got his basic knowledge of Christ directly from Christ in the Damascus road vision, and that he also compared notes with the other Apostles. And that Matthew wrote a Gospel, or at last the words of the Lord, in Hebrew. We do not have data on the Greek text we now have.

Objection: To say that Christians were sincere since they even faced death for their faith does not prove anything: the Muslims and others do that too. Reply: To die for a faith proves only sincerity, it does not prove they have the facts. We have shown the Gospel writers did have the facts. There is no such evidence for Mohammed, who claimed visions in a cave - there was never any checking. Some of the writings he left contain contradictions.

Absolutely no other religious group or sect can present such a carefully worked out line of evidence as what we are now presenting -with the final part to come immediately below.

Six facts from the Gospels: We have seen that the Gospels intended to present facts, that we can tell them apart from interpretations, that they had access to the facts, that they believed their eternity depended on the facts. Now, to reach a conclusion, we look for and find six simple, uncomplicated facts, such that there is no room for bias to create them.

1) There was a man named Jesus: We have already shown that the facts were available, the fact that He lived is the most obvious of all of them. Even pagan history reports on Him. Tacitus, a Roman historian considered by modern historians to be about as good on facts as modern writers wrote (Annals, 15. 44): " The author of the name, Christ, was executed in the reign of Tiberius, by the procurator Pontius PIlate."

2) He claimed to be a messenger sent by God: Again, it is quite obvious that He claimed this. He claimed authority over the law given by Moses (Mt. 5. 21-44). He said He was greater than Jonah and Solomon (Mt. 12. 41-43). He said He was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 35. 5 -6 (Mt. 11. 3-5; Luke 7, 20-22). He claimed He could forgive sins (Mark 2. 1-12 and parallels).

3) He did enough to prove He was such, by means of miracles worked in special contexts, with a tie established between the miracle and the claim. The case just cited from Mark 2. 1-12 is an example: He cured the paralytic to prove He had forgiven the man's sins. He many times over made such a connection, e. g, Mk. 5:21-43; Mt 8. 5-13; Mt 9. 27-29 and more). The NJBC on p. 1371 asserts:"Consistently, Jesus is presented as refusing to work miracles to show off his power (Matt 4:5-7; Luke 23:6-12;Mark 8:11-13; Matt 12:38-42; Mark 15;31-32." Reply: In Mt 4:5-7 He refuses to do as the devil asks in the temptations; In Lk 23:6-12 He refuses to gratify the curiosity of Herod; in Mk 8:11-13 the Pharisees asked a sign to tempt Him: "A wicked and adulterous generation seeks a sign: - they had already seen so many. Mt. 12:38-42 is same as Mk 8:11-13. In Mk 15:31-32 the high priests ask Him to come down from the cross. Are these claims stupid or deliberately fraudulent?

Many sects today claim frequent miracles. But none of these are checked. The Catholic Church is very demanding. The shrine of Lourdes has had thousands of seeming cures since the visions of 1858. But only a bit over 60 of them have been accepted. Before the acceptance, there must have been a medical certificate of the disease and the statement that it is beyond science. As soon as it happens, a staff of Doctors examines, and the examination is repeated later. For details, cf. Ruth Cranston The Miracle of Lourdes, (updated edition, 1988, Doubleday, Image Books). If someone says there can be no miracles, we merely show those that are checked to the hilt by modern science. Another, The Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano, by B. Sammaciccia, A. E. Burakowski, F. J. Kuba (Stella Maris Books, Ft. Worth TX), tells of a host and clots of blood kept since about 800 AD, which have been checked by a team of Doctors and biologists, who found it to be part of a human heart, with no preservatives; the blood is Type AB, the same as the blood that came from the chalice, also still to be seen.

Even the hardly conservative New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990) admits, on pp. 1320-21: "Extraordinary deeds of Jesus not easily explained by human means, esp. exorcisms and cures, were never denied in antiquity, even by his enemies , who referred his miracles to the power of the devil... and, in later polemics, to magic."

Some try to say His miracles are much like those of Rabbis and Greeks. On the later, cf. J. McGinley, "Hellenic Analogies and the Typical Healing Narrative," in Theological Studies 4 (1943) pp. 385-419. Or they say that Apollonius of Tyana is much like Christ, as seen in his life by Philostratus. But that life was written much after the events. We see Apollonius is just a Pythagorean philosopher, not one who claimed he was sent by God to bring eternal salvation by His own suffering. Apollonius holds many merely philosophical discussions. All of Greece assembles at Olympia to hear him (8:15-19) for forty days. In India he finds dragons 60 feet long (3:7) whose eyes contain mystic gems. If they were hollowed out they would hold enough drink for four men. He also sees robot tripods that serve meals. His "miracles" are poor. He finds a satyr annoying women, and quiets him with wine (6:27). He meets a woman who has a son possessed by a demon, which turns out to be the ghost of a man who fell in battle, but had been attached to his wife. When she married three days after his death he became disgusted with women, and so, after death, became homosexual over the 16 year old boy. Apollonius gives the woman a letter with threats to the ghost (3:38). And there is more of the same.

4 & 5) As we would expect, He had a smaller circle within the crowds that followed, to whom He spoke more, and He told them to continue His work, His teaching. We cannot imagine a messenger sent from God for just one generation in one small out of the way country. So in Luke 6. 12-16 He picks Twelve Apostles. He sent them out to preach (Mark 3. 13-14, cf. Mt. 10. 5; Luke 9. 2). At the end he told them (Mt 28. 18 - 20): "All power is given to me in heaven and earth. Go therefore and teach all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold, I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world."

6) He promised God would protect their teaching. Really we would expect a messenger sent by God with a great mission to provide for this. Hence He told them (Lk 10. 16): "He who hears you hears me; and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me, rejects him who sent me."

Some Protestants try to say that this text merely means that Jesus identifies with them, as He does with the poor. But they forget under what respect does He identify Himself with them - as poor - or as those sent to teach in His name. It is clearly the latter, as those who teach in His name.

Again, in Matthew 18. 17-18: "If he will not hear them [others sent along to help correct someone in error or sin] tell the church. And if he will not hear the church, let him be to you as the heathen and the publican. Amen, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven." The words "binding and loosing" were well known in the teaching of the rabbis of the time. Their regular meaning was to impose or remove an obligation by an authoritative decision or teaching. These words in the passage cited were spoken to all the Apostles. They were specially spoken to Peter in Mt 16. 19. W. F. Albright, a noted Protestant Scripture scholar often called in his last years," the dean of American Scripture scholars", wrote in his commentary on Matthew (Anchor Bible, Doubleday , 1971, p. 198): "Peter's authority to 'bind' or 'release' will be a carrying out of decisions made in Heaven. His teaching and disciplinary activities will be similarly guided by the Spirit to carry out Heaven's will."

Conclusion from The Gospels: We now see before us a group (actually, a church) commissioned to teach, by a messenger sent from God, and promised God's protection on their teaching. Now it is not only intellectually permissible, but mandatory, if we have followed the reasoning, to believe their teaching, and this is quite independent of the quality of the men having that promise today. Then this group or church can tell us which books are inspired - there is no other way (cf. Free From All Error, chapter 2), and can tell us that the Messenger is actually divine. They can also tell us that there is a Pope, and what authority he has.

So now at last, we know we can go ahead and use the Gospels as sources of data about Christ.

Subscribe for free
Click here to advertise on CatholicCulture.org

Recent Catholic Commentary

The Blessed Book of Beasts 6 hours ago
Weekend reading 15 hours ago
Frustrating the Moral Law 16 hours ago
Weep for slaughtered Christians, not for dialogue with Islam 20 hours ago
An Appointment that Francis Should Withdraw August 28

Top Catholic News

Most Important Stories of the Last 30 Days
‘A real via crucis’: Pope Francis, patriarch plead on behalf of Iraq’s Christians CWN - August 8
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians in flight as Islamic State advances CWN - August 8