The MOST Theological Collection: Catholic Apologetics Today: Answers to Modern Critics
"Chapter 8: What Did the Author Want to Say?"
Imagine an archaeologist three or four thousand years from today, digging in the ruins of our civilization. He makes a great discovery! A complete book on the Civil War in the United States turns up! Excitedly, he pores over it. He finds details hitherto unknown, including word-for-word conversations between President Lincoln and several important persons!
So far into the future, our imaginary archeologist will probably belong to a culture very different from ours. But we hope and pray he will show a basic piece of common sense in recognizing that the ancient authors of 20th-century America did not necessarily write in the same literary patterns or genres as the people of his age. After all, it would be a coincidence, a matter of chance, if they did, since the cultures would be so different.
You see, what our imaginary archaeologist found was really an historical novel. Now we, being natives of this culture, know perfectly well what credence to give to historical novels. We know they are a mixture of history and fictional fill-ins. The main thrust is historical, the background scenes fit the period (during the U.S. Civil War there were steam trains and telegraphs, but no planes or TV). Yet we, as natives, know the author of this novel would make fill-ins, which are fictional, such as the word-for-word conversations of Lincoln with important people. The author may capture the general sense of the discussion, but we cannot be sure. He may not have even that; we expect him to fill in.
Suppose our imaginary future archaeologist would not realize this point, that he would try to take those conversations as being fully historical. It would be a sad and silly error because he should know better than just to assume all cultures did the same things his would do.
Now these patterns of writing are commonly called genres.
Of course, we have more than one genre in English. We picked the historical novel to illustrate our point because it is a specially clear example. We have inherited our literary genres for the most part from Greece and Rome, with very little change. As a result, if we do our reading anywhere in that culture stream, our almost instinctive reactions-knowing how it was meant, and how to take it-serve us well.
But, if we start to read something from a different culture, then it would be foolishness-really, tragic foolishness-for us to assume that the other culture did everything the same way 20th-century Americans do.
Scripture obviously comes from a different culture; it was ancient; it was Semitic. Therefore, for us to assume that the writers of Scripture wrote in our patterns would be very foolish. Yet, many today do that. They are called Fundamentalists. They reach such regrettable conclusions as insisting that the first chapters of Genesis teach that God made the world in six periods of 24 hours each. In so interpreting the Bible they think they are exercising great faith. Really, they are not being faithful, for they are not asking what the Scriptural writer intended to assert via his genre; they are instead imposing their own ideas upon Scripture.
We hope it is clear why we have spent this time on literary genres. We want to make clear that before we read any part of Scripture, our first duty is to see what the genre was, the pattern the Scriptural writer intended to use, so we may know the "rules" by which it was to be understood, rules which were common both to the Scriptural writer and to his original readers.
We may, of course, find overlaps with our patterns. But we cannot assume anything in advance. We must check carefully.
Therefore, since we intend to use the Gospels as ancient documents in which we want to find a few facts as a basis for faith, we must ask, even before we start to look at the Gospels, "What is the genre in which the Gospels were written? What did the Gospel writers intend to assert? What medium did they choose for it?"
We are going to study only the first three Gospels writers: Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is not that we reject John, but we think it at least likely, even from a cursory reading, that the genre of John is somewhat different from that of the first three. The first three are often called Synoptics, a convenient name to use instead of repeating three names.
At first sight we get the impression that the Synoptics intend, among other things, to give us some facts about the man called Jesus. But that is just our preliminary impression. We must work carefully to see if that is true, and what qualifications need to be added to it.
We begin by examining the Hebrew concept of the genre of history, for Christianity grew out of and completed Judaism. That concept can affect the genre of the Gospels.
The Greeks and Romans, not all, but many of them, were given to the cyclic theory of history, the view that history is not developing forward, as it were, but instead, that the course of events turns back on itself and keeps repeating itself. For example, Plato taught a cycle of rebirths for every individual (though a good philosopher might eventually escape). Still earlier, the Greek philosopher Anaximander (c. 610-545 B.C.) taught an unending cycle of destructions and restorations of the world. Aristotle tells us Empedocles and Heraclitus held such a theory.26 The influential Stoics had similar views, as we learn from the work of Diogenes Laertius on Zeno.27 Aristotle himself, speaking of certain features of culture in Egypt and Crete said, "These and many other things have been invented several times over in the course of ages, or rather, times without number."28 Most primitive peoples seem to have held similar cyclic ideas, as we see in detail in the important study by Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return.
All these cyclic views, which think that the world is going nowhere-is only repeating itself-differ sharply from the Hebrew concept of history. As Mircea Eliade tells us, "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 that stands entirely alone."29
As Eliade pointed out, the Christian current rather naturally continues the Hebrew current, for Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism. Eliade adds, "The destiny of all mankind, together with the individual destiny of each one of us, are both likewise played out once, once for all [in contrast to unending recurring cycles] in a concrete and irreplaceable time, which is that of history and life."30
Really, this is most natural and is what we would expect. Once a person comes to believe-or rather, for the first Christians to see-that there was a unique event that was the turning point of all history, that is, the comma of Christ, and to see that that event is the key to the personal fate. and the eternal fate of each man, then no mere fancies or imaginings to the contrary will suffice or even be of any interest to him. The great question for each man will be, "What really happened? How does it affect me for eternity?" He will spare nothing to get the facts, and once he has them, he will hold on to them in spite of everything.
This is precisely what the first Christians did. We find it already in St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians (Con 15:1-19) in 57 A.D., "And if Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain ... If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable." Miserable, yes, for by the hundreds and the thousands the early Christians died rather than say the facts were not facts, rather than deny Christ, on whom they understood their eternity to depend.
A brilliant example comes in the letter to the Romans of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch. He died, eaten by the wild beasts in the Arena at Rome about the year 107 A.D. He wrote to the Christians at Rome, "May I enjoy the beasts prepared for me, and I pray they may be prompt. I will even entice them to eat me promptly, so they will not refrain from touching me, as they have for some, out of fear ... Understand me, brothers, do not hinder me from living eternally [by dying for Christ]. Do not wish me to die [to have to stay in this life]."31
Let someone today take this letter and read it in front of the lion cage in the zoo. He will understand that the man who wrote it was concerned with facts, the facts of Christ, His death, and his own likeness to Christ by dying for Christ. St. Ignatius even added a plea to the Christians at Rome that they should not use their influence to free him, in case some Christian might have such influence. He wanted to die to testify to Christ.
The case of St. Ignatius is but one sample. Christians all over the Mediterranean world, well before 100 A.D., were so absolutely insistent on the factuality of Christ that they all held basically the same beliefs-even though scattered all over the Mediterranean. If they had been dealing in fancies, in unsupported claims, there could not have been such an agreement. Facts are necessary to give consistency to any story-especially where numerous people are involved.
By now it is quite obvious what the Synoptic writers intended to do: they meant to give facts, and took great care with those facts, for their eternity depended on that. Therefore, that is the chief feature of the genre of the Gospels. Obviously, they also would give interpretations. In Chapter 6 of this book, we saw that the Greek and Roman writers also tried to give these two things: facts plus interpretations. We noticed too that some Scripture scholars, foolishly, think we cannot tell facts from interpretations! We showed by concrete examples that we can make this distinction, and do so quite easily.
In spite of the above knowledge, some have still suggested that the Gospels were really only of a loose genre, like some ancient biographies, and not interested in facts.
But the Gospels are not like that, and for several reasons. First, some-not all-of the pagan biographers could not readily get at the facts; some probably did not try hard to do so. But some ancient biographies are very concerned with facts, e.g., Suetonius' Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Michael Grant, a noted classicist, in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Suetonius, credits Suetonius with a "relatively high degree of objectivity" and adds that he "gathers together, and lavishly inserts, information both for and against them [the Emperors] usually without adding any personal judgement in one direction or the other, and above all without introducing ... moralizations."
The chief example of a loose ancient biography that is often suggested for comparison to the Gospels is the life of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus. It is actually strange that anyone should seriously suggest the comparison, since an actual reading of Philostratus points out so many extensive, major differences.
First, Philostratus wrote long after the events. The Synoptic Gospels were probably written before 70 A.D., less than 40 years after the death of Jesus. Even if they were written as late as 80
90 A.D., as some propose, they would still be far closer than the account of Philostratus to the person portrayed. And, as we will see in Chapter 10, there were still persons alive who had been cured or raised from the dead by Jesus in 90 A.D.
Further, Apollonius is really just a Pythagorean philosopher, not one who claimed to be sent by God to bring eternal salvation by His own suffering. Philostratus and Apollonius believed in many pagan gods. The Egyptian god Proteus appears to the pregnant mother of Apollonius. It seems Apollonius is a reincarnation of Proteus.
Philostratus enters into a very large number of philosophical discussions. There are even some contrived scenes, some poor imitations of Platonic dialogues, and even some glib moralism. We find a discussion on the intelligence and breeds of elephants (2:11-16). Some discussions reported were enormously long. At Olympia, for instance, all of Greece assembled before Apollonius (8:15-19), as he holds no less than forty days of philosophical discussions and debates. Yet, in spite of such philosophical pretenses, we find Apollonius playing up unabashedly to Vespasian's desire for imperial power (5:28-30). Of course, there are no mere philosophical discussions in the Synoptic Gospels, and all presentations are brief.
Philostratus also introduces very large quantities of mere travelogue material. Many people then never went far from home, and therefore liked to hear about "faraway places with strange-sounding names." In India, Apollonius sees dragons some sixty feet long (3:7). Their eyes contained mystic gems; and it is explained how to get those gems. Gems in India are described as so large that if hollowed out, they hold enough drink for four men (3:27). In one place, there are robot tripods that serve meals (3:27). Apollonius seeks and finds the source of the Nile: a place of giant geysers in a dense mountainous region (6:26). He fears permanent deafness from the roar, and is apprehensive of the fact that all the demons of the world used the area for a gathering place. By contrast, our Gospels never sound like a tabloid equivalent of National Geographic!
Miracles in this book are much different from those of the Gospels. They are never done in the sort of framework needed to prove the wonderworker is a messenger from God (conditions will be explained in Chapter 12). In one place Apollonius finds a satyr annoying women; he quiets the satyr with wine (6:27). He also meets a woman who has a son possessed by a demon. It turns out that the demon is really the ghost of a man who fell in battle; he had been much attached to his wife, and so when she married three days after his death, he became disgusted with women. After death he became homosexual over the 16-year-old boy he was possessing. Apollonius gives the woman a letter containing threats to the ghost (3:38). When he met a woman who had suffered in labor seven times, he told her husband that whenever his wife was about to bring forth the next child, he should go into her room carrying in his bosom a live rabbit. He should walk around the wife once, and then release the rabbit, and drive it out of the room, otherwise the womb would be expelled together with the child. (3:39).
In the final episodes, Apollonius proclaims it is fitting for the wise to die for philosophy. Yet he says he cannot be hurt when he has to appear before the emperor. Finally, he disappears from the courtroom. Here there is nothing parallel to Jesus, who voluntarily accepted suffering as a means of the redemption of mankind.
But the most critical difference between such things and our Gospels is motive. The loose pagan biographies were not dealing with things on which eternity depended; the Gospels were. No one was going to die in torment to vouch for the factuality of the tales about Apollonius.
Finally, we can easily judge for ourselves in this whole matter. For there really were some loose compositions written about Jesus, e.g., the Gospel of James. But even a cursory reading shows the lack of concern for factuality in that gospel, as compared with the real Gospels. Hence the Church and the first Christians never accepted such things as parts of Scripture. They wanted facts, not fancies, on which to stake their own eternity.
To sum up, the genre of the Synoptic Gospels is one that attempts to give facts plus interpretations. The first Christians' tremendous insistence on factuality, since their eternity depended on it, assures us that the interpretations will not falsify or distort the facts, and that the facts themselves will be reliable.32
Some object that Form and Redaction Criticism have shown that the Gospels cannot be trusted. Fortunately, one of the chief proponents of this position, Norman Perrin, gives us what he considers the strongest instance in which Form Criticism shows the Gospels unhistorical. He dares to say that he once trusted the Gospels, but, "The gospel materials themselves have forced us to change our mind."33
The prize instance which "forced" Perrin is Mark 9:1, "There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power." Matthew 16:28 reiterates this idea, except it says they will see "the Son of man coming in his kingdom." Luke 9:27 says they will see "the kingdom of God."
Perrin thinks that Matthew and Mark refer to the End of the World, but Luke has given up on hope for an early end.
Are we, therefore, forced to understand the passage with Perrin's interpretation? Hardly. First, all three Synoptics put this line just before The Transfiguration of Christ. What they describe could be the thing they were about to see. But, more probably, since "with power" refers to displays of the power of God (miracles) and since it is admitted34 by many that the kingdom of God stands for the Church, in this world and in the next, we can say that Mark means that some will see the kingdom, the Church, being established with displays of divine power or miracles after the first Pentecost. That, of course, has happened.
As to the reading in Matthew, the "Son of Man" is of course Christ. "Coming" can refer to the Hebrew concept of paqad, a "visitation." And so the meaning is that they will see Christ coming, visiting the world in His kingdom, His Church-not in His return at the end. Luke merely says they will see the kingdom, that is, the Church established. Dr. Perrin's theory does not hold up under our scrutiny, as you can see.
Form and Redaction Criticism correctly suppose that our Gospels developed in three stages: 1 ) the deeds and words of Jesus, adapted in presentation to His audience; 2) the way the Apostles and first generation preached these things with adaptation to the audience again; 3) that some individuals, moved by the Spirit, wrote down some part of this original preaching-and that is the Gospel. Therefore, the Church has something more basic than the Gospels, its own ongoing preaching.
After noting that there are these three stages, the critics then try to find out at which of the three stages any given part of the Gospel reached its present form. For the Church may reasonably have adapted the wording to the needs of the people present at that time.
We fully agree with scholars in wanting to find out answers to these questions. But we must point out that the evidence from these studies never proves anything because it is too subjective. Even the more sanguine Form Critics now admit this, and many are relying less and less on this approach.35
However, even if they could prove solidly at which stage something took its present form, that would mean nothing against the reliability of the facts given. As we have said, the Apostles and others in the early Church-and we too-know eternity itself depends on getting the facts right! So their rewording, if, in fact, they did this, would still convey the same facts.
We will be seeing, in the next chapters, how to construct a bypass around all such worries of the form critics. We need to establish only six very easy points about Jesus, things not at all difficult to understand, things not affected by the claims of the form critics. With these six points, we will know that there is a body or group of people, commissioned to teach as a messenger sent by God and promised divine protection for their teaching. This group, then, can assure us of other things we want to know about Jesus.
A full study of form and redaction criticism can be found in W. Most, Free from All Error (Prow Press, 1985) pp. 121-149. Cf. also idem, The Consciousness of Christ, pp. 174-228 and pp. 8-38.36