The Father William Most Collection
Historicity of Gospels
[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]
One of the first schemata to open at the Council was Dei verbum, but one of he last to be approved: bitter debate. DV 19 adds: "Holy Mother Church firmly and most constantly has held and does hold that the four Gospels just mentioned, whose historicity she affirms without hesitation, faithfully hand down what Jesus, the son of God, living among men, really did and taught (reapse fecit et docuit) for their eternal salvation... ."
We note the word "historicity." The writers of DV shied away from the word history, since, thanks to confusion in Germany, there is a distinction: Geschichte is not the event in itself, but what the proclamation conjures up in the mind, irrespective of its actual content. Historie is the grasping of the event through reason according to the laws of historical criticism." R. Bultmann had said we can know hardly anything about Jesus in Himself, beyond His existence . We believe the proclamation - and there is a problem of what is the gap between the reality and the proclamation.
Paul VI had suggested, not commanded, using "vera seu historica fide digna" = true, worthy of historical belief, instead of what we actually find, "quae reapse fecit et docuit." The problem of the two German words led to not following his suggestion. Bede Rigaux, in his commentary on this passage in Vorgrimler, p. 259, wrote: "Throughout all these discussions and misgivings we can see the clear will of the Church to accord to these synoptic Gospels their value as testimony to the reality of the events that they narrate and to the certainty with which they present us with the Person, the words and acts of Jesus."
DV 19 adds that "The Apostles indeed, after the ascension of the Lord, handed on to their hearers what He had said and done, with the fuller understanding which they enjoyed after being instructed by the glorious events of Christ and taught by the light of the Spirit of Truth." - This was not a process of first idealizing, then divinizing. No, rather, they understood more fully that He was really was divine, and this would spur their memories, and make them all the more careful to report things correctly, knowing that their eternity depended on the truth about Jesus. They did not hide their own dullness and lack of understanding that was shown earlier. (Cf. Acts 1:6 shows that even just before His ascension they still did not have the true notion of the Messiah. But they did, then, later, grasp the full meaning of things they had not really seen before, and they understood His prophecies --especially of His death and resurrection-- and probably the OT Prophecies about Him as well. Definitely we can see that the primitive Church saw Him in Isaiah 53-- the Targums also saw the Messiah there, but distorted, as we saw above. Another example: John 2. 19-21 ("Destroy this temple, and in three days I will rebuild it."). Other examples: Jn 3:22; 6:6; 12:16; 20:9.
DV 19 adds: "Moreover, the sacred authors of the four Gospels, selecting certain things out of many things, handed down orally or in writing, putting certain things into a synthesis, or explaining them for the state of the Church, finally, kept the form of preaching in such a way that they always communicated to us the honest truth (vera et sincera) about Jesus." This implies we watch for the genre of the Gospels - but it is such a genre that there are two things in it- facts are reported, with proclamation or presentation designed for faith. But that second point did not lead to any distortion or inaccurate reporting. They told rather "what He really did and said."
So it is likely that Matthew grouped sayings into the Sermon on the Mount. And Luke grouped parables.
Also from DV 19:"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."
This means for one thing, that the order was not always chronological. It also means that in presenting things--as we noted in describing the three stages of the genesis of the Gospels--they might change the words, to adapt to their audience, and to the special scope of each Gospel. But they would give the truth faithfully even so.