Not up-to-date on the origins of the gospels? Here’s your chance.
Innumerable controversies surround the origins and textual integrity of the four gospels, and especially of the three synoptic gospels. We can be forgiven if we do not keep up. But the 2017 Fall / Winter issue of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly caught my attention with an interesting survey by Jerome D. Gilmartin, entertainingly entitled “Jesus Emerges from the Historical-Critical Fog”.
Gilmartin makes the case that the best available evidence now supports a very early dating of the gospels, rendering the “Q” hypothesis untenable. “Q” was the name given to a supposed early source, of unknown origin, that those joined at the hip with form-and-historical criticism have always used to explain the similarity in the synoptic gospels. Such a presumption was argued to be necessary because so many modern scholars assigned very late compositional dates to the gospels. This in turn owed much to their rationalist discomfort with actual eye-witness accounts of a Christ who performed miracles, died for our sins and, to prove His point, rose from the dead.
Fair enough: We should all be uncomfortable in the presence of such eye witnesses, for they demand a life-changing decision. But even the briefest reflection on the consequences of “Q” and the late-dating of the Gospels enables us to see a kind of circular convenience for modern secularists who desire the latest possible dating of the accounts of the life of Christ. Such a dating encourages us to imagine that much of the New Testament narrative, and especially the miracles, can be explained by the deep impression made by a merely human teacher on his disciples, such that they gradually came to explain his liberating message in symbolic terms.
Thus the Modernist could argue that the Resurrection was a literary invention to symbolize new life, that it was never intended to be taken literally—and that the “fact” that the Resurrection story cannot be dated to the time of Christ Himself is evidence that neither the Resurrection nor the other miracles ought to be understood in a material sense. With the same liberty, the form critic could interpret passages in the Gospel as so many philosophical ideas cloaked in literary terms, inspiring but non-literal interpretations, not of what really happened but of the impact of the man Jesus Christ on the school of thought and belief he initiated.
After all, consider: Did not the early followers of every classical school of thought claim their founders had risen from the dead? Think of Socrates, for example, who was so beloved by Plato and Aristotle. Was he not said to have cheated death? What? No? He merely cheated violent execution by self-administering a concoction of hemlock?
Out of the historical-critical fog
Anyway, the curious response to Christ on the part of prior generations of modern scholars is exactly what Jerome Gilmartin means by “the historical-critical fog”. He is correct to notice that it has made Biblical studies very hard on the faith of almost everybody, but especially seminarians who for so long had been asked to trust this historical sleight of hand and remain on fire to preach the Gospel at the same time.
There are, of course, innumerable difficulties in studying ancient texts, especially if a scholar does not wish to rely on the (admittedly imperfectly documented) traditions of the only human institution existing today that was around at the time those texts were composed. And, to be fair, the Church has never regarded her traditions (lowercase “t”) in this matter to be definitive. We do not know exactly when each gospel was written, nor for certain the order in which they were written. But we have good reason to regard them as early accounts by eye witnesses, not because that is more compatible with our faith, but because it is most likely true.
It has always been both the most plausible and the earliest attested theory, of course. But university scholarship used to be such an awe-inspiring phenomenon! What Gilmartin demonstrates, at this later stage, is that the best contemporary scholarship now tends to agree with those early traditions. Faith may play a role in all this, but we can also imagine that the desire of competent scholars to secure their reputations, by demolishing the previous generation’s ideas, often exceeds their all too natural fear of the supernatural implications of their discoveries. Or perhaps we had to have a generation or four of straw men before the necessary evidence could be compiled by a sufficient number of scholars to knock them down.
Happily, Gilmartin’s article also appears, in only slightly different from, on the home page of his website, 7stepcatholic.org. The website is named for a work of apologetics he has written, published and promoted widely in both national and local Catholic media: The 7-Step Reason to Be Catholic: Science, the Bible and History Point to Catholicism (now in its second edition, but which I have not read). Gilmartin’s background is in philosophy and psychology, and although his scholastic studies have been reasonably extensive, he does not possess an advanced degree. He is, therefore, neither an academic Scripture scholar nor a professional theologian, and he is past the age of staking out a new career.
But he is well-read, a careful researcher, and an experienced presenter. The article we are considering here is easy to follow and amply documented. I should state clearly that I am not competent to judge the strengths and weaknesses of each theory of gospel composition. But for those interested in the issues surrounding the origin of the four gospels, and in the case that can be made for a position which is more likely to deepen faith than to undermine it, Jerome Gilmartin provides an easy way to catch up.
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