The Father William Most Collection
General Introduction to the Gospels
[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]
l. What is a Gospel? This question really asks what sort of literature a Gospel is. In other words, what is the literary genre of a Gospel?
To see what that word genre means, we think of a modern historical novel about the Civil War. Since we are natives of this culture, we instinctively know how to take it - we know it should include both history and fiction. The mainline will be history; but we expect the author to fill in with things that are at best guesses or pure fiction, but which fit in well. For example, he may give us word for word discussions between Lincoln and Grant. This makes it more realistic and interesting.
The key word here is assert or claim. The writer asserts the main line is history. He does not assert the fill-ins are historical or real. So we do not say he is in error or is falsifying in these fill-ins.
Now we have in English many genres or patterns, mostly inherited from those of Greece and Rome, with rather little change. Hence as long as we do our reading in that great culture stream, our instinctive or automatic adjustments, which we make as natives, serve us well. For we do need to make adjustments or follow rules in understanding, as we did with the historical novel - each genre has as it were its own rules.
But, obviously, as soon as we begin to read works from a very different culture stream, it would be foolish to suppose those writers wrote just the way modern Americans do. Scripture belongs to the ancient Semitic culture. The patterns there are rather different. DV §12 explicitly tells us that and says we must study to see what patterns were in use in those times.
The pattern most like the Gospels, though not identical, is that of history. We know what the Greek and Roman writers intended to do when they wrote history, for they themselves tell us. For example, the earliest Greek historian, Herodotus, says in his opening lines that he wrote,"in the hope of... preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done." But he wanted to sift truth from falsehood too. So (7. 152):"... my duty is to report all that is said, but I am not obliged to believe it all alike." He meant that things very far back from his times, such as the Trojan War, were lost in the mists. But the events of his own day, the two Persian invasions of Greece - these he could and did record rather well. Similarly Thucydides, greatest of the Greek historians, in late 5th century B.C. said (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."
So these Greek and Roman historians wanted to record things that really happened, facts. So did the Gospel writers, obviously, for the Hebrew tradition also included such works. And much more important, the writers of the Gospels knew that their eternal fate depended on getting the truth about Jesus and His teachings. So they would obviously be very careful. Later on we will see what opportunities they had to get at the facts.
The Greek and Roman writers also wanted to give interpretations, to learn from history. For example, Diodorus (1. 1) wrote: "It is a blessing to be given a chance to improve ourselves by taking a warning from the mistakes of others." History does not produce complete duplicates, of course. But the ways of men are psychologically much the same in all times. So we can and should profit from hearing.
2. Can we trust the Gospels? (apologetics): Some today foolishly say we cannot separate the two things, facts and interpretations. All we need to do is to observe a few instances. For example, Tacitus, the greatest Roman historian, tells us that when Tiberius first came into the senate after the death of Augustus, he said he wanted only to arrange the funeral of Augustus. Clearly, that was an example of a fact: anyone present could see and observe it. But Tacitus also said that Tiberius had in mind that up north with a great army was Germanicus, who had a claim at the throne. Tiberius felt he must be careful to avoid provoking trouble. Clearly, in saying that, Tacitus was trying to read the mind of Tiberius: it was an interpretation - very likely a true one.
Some also say: "There is no such a thing as an uninterpreted report." They mean that our subjectivity gets into the telling of things. Is this true? Very often yes, but not always. For example if a leper stands before Jesus saying he wants to be healed, and Jesus says: "I will it. Be healed," anyone present can report it simply, and there is no room for subjectivity to get into the report - the structure of the case is too simple for that.
Before long we will see that just six things of that simple structure are all we need to prove that the Church has a commission to teach, from a messenger sent by God, who also promised God's protection.
We had asked: Did the Gospel writers have a chance to get the facts - for it is not enough to be sincere and well-intentioned if they could not get the facts. We reply: they surely did have an excellent chance. Here are a few of the openings: 1) Pope St. Clement became Pope around 88 AD. We have his letter to Corinth, written probably around 95 AD. In it he says that Peter and Paul were of his own generation. A quick look at the numbers makes that obvious. They died around 66 AD. From there to around 88 is not long - so Clement must have heard them preach in Rome - the prime witnesses! 2) St. Ignatius of Antioch was shipped to Rome to be eaten alive by the animals c. 107 AD. He was eaten. On the way he wrote seven letters, which we have. In the one to Rome, he tells the Christians there: In case some of you have influence and might get me off - please do not. I want to die for Christ, to be more like him. Some today foolishly - without offering any shred of evidence, claim the early Christians were "creative", they just made things up. These same writers are immeasurably demanding of proof for other things - but for this claim of fakery, they offer no shred, as we said. But if one thinks they might be right, let him take a copy of the letter of Ignatius to Rome to the zoo, and read it by the lions' den. Will such a man just make up things? Of course not. And he came from Antioch where Peter and Paul first functioned as the authorities, where information on them was still alive and well. 3) We could give many more sources, but one alone will suffice, even without those just given: Think of someone aged 15 at the time of the public life of Jesus. Fifty years later he would be aged 65, and then at about the year 80. The most radical writers say that Matthew and Luke wrote between 80 and 90 - and the same authors admit Mark wrote before 70. So there would be many on hand who would know things about Jesus.
Was life expectancy then too short for people to reach age 65? Many did not. But quite a few did. Anna in Luke 2:37 was 84 years old when Jesus was presented in the Temple. And Quadratus the first Greek apologist, writing around 123 AD, said that in his day some were still alive who had been healed by Christ or raised from the dead by Him. Not strange that a person repaired by His Maker should last a while! That need not reach to 123, but it would surely reach to the period 80-90 in which the leftist critics claim Matthew and Luke were written.
So our Gospel writers could easily get the essential facts, and their motive was most powerful: the care for their own eternal fate.
What things do we need to get from the Gospels to prove there is a Church with a commission to teach from a messenger sent by God? Just six - and please notice they all are of such very simple structure that there is no room for subjectivity to get into the reports: 1) There was a man named Jesus; 2) He said He was sent by God - obvious all over the Gospels; 3) He did enough to prove that, not just by miracles, but by miracles done in a framework in which there was a tie made between the miracle and the claim, e.g., Jesus told the paralytic let down through the roof: "Your sins are forgiven". When the scribes growled interiorly, He called them on it: "What is easier to say: Your sins are forgiven - or, take your bed and go". He did the one to prove He had done the other. God, the ultimate source of such power, will not furnish it to prove a lie Really, all over the Gospels He called for faith to give a miracle. 4 and 5) As we would expect, He had a smaller group within the crowds - the apostles - to whom He spoke more, and whom He told to continue His teaching. 6) Finally, once we have seen what a messenger He was, who not only worked miracles - not even His enemies in His own day denied that - but who proved He could even forgive sins -it is not surprising if such a messenger asserts "He who hears you hears me."
If we have followed this careful reasoning, what do we see before us? We see a group, or church, commissioned to teach by a Messenger sent for God, and promised God's protection on that teaching. Then it is not only intellectually possible, but inevitable to believe what they teach, even if the later inheritors of that commission may not be the best sort of persons. We can ask that group or church: Is this Messenger divine? Yes. These ancient documents we looked at, were they inspired? Yes. If there a Pope? Yes. What can He do? They can and do answer.
Let us realize what we have just done. We have given in brief form - a tightly reasoned proof that we have a group or church commissioned to teach by someone sent from God, and given a promise of God's protection. There is not today, there never has been, any religion, sect, or whatever that can give such a proof.
This also gives us a bypass around the quibbles of extreme and unsound writers who put their finger down on so many Gospel passages and ask what proof there is that this really happened. We need only six things, so very simple in structure. Then this Church can answer what questions we need.
This process is called apologetics.
3. Inerrancy: Vatican II, in the Constitution on Divine Revelation (hereinafter = DV) §11 said: "Since everything which the inspired authors... assert, should be held to asserted by the Holy Spirit, hence the books of Scripture are to be professed to teach firmly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted entrusted to the Sacred Letters for our salvation."
We need to notice two things here: 1) Whatever the human inspired writer asserts is asserted by the Holy Spirit. For as the same paragraph said earlier, these books "have God as their author". God, being all powerful, could use the human writer as a free instrument, leaving him his own style of writing, and yet cause him to write all that God willed, and only that, and to do so without error. If there were any error, God Himself would be the author of error! Therefore those writers today who say that only those things needed for salvation are protected by inspiration, are saying God could be the author of error!
4. Who were these Gospel writers? There are traditions, and we will review them. But we really have no need. All we need is what we already have - we have writers who (a) could get at the facts; (b) who were in most deadly earnest, knowing their eternal fate depended on the truth about Jesus.
Here are some of the chief traditions. Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia around 130 AD wrote the Exegesis of the Lord's Sayings. Papias tells us he diligently collected whatever he could learn from those who had heard the Apostles. He tell us about Mark: "Mark became the interpreter of Peter, and wrote accurately the doings and sayings of the Lord, not in sequence, but all that he remembered. For he [Mark] had not heard the Lord, or followed Him, but as I said, followed Peter later on, who, as needed, gave teaching, but did not make an arrangement of the sayings of the Lord... . He gave heed to one thing, to leave out nothing of what he had heard, and to make no false statements about them."
Papias also said: Matthew collected the sayings [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as he could." Of course we cannot tell what relation this work had to our present Greek Matthew.
Some object to Papias, saying that Eusebius, the first Church historian, called Papias "a man of very small intelligence." But those who object do not notice in what respect Eusebius said this. He said it in view of the fact that Papias accepted the millennium theory, misunderstanding Revelation 20:4-6. But that passage is very easy to misunderstand. Today even the New Jerome Biblical Commentary looks with some favor on that interpretation! And really, how much intelligence would be needed to report what others told him about the authorship of the Gospels? Not much.
Further, we have other ancient testimonies. The Anti-Marcionite Prologues to the Gospels, in the part on Mark, dating from perhaps around 180 A.D. give us a fascinating testimony "Mark, who was called stumpfingered, was the interpreter of Peter." The remark that Mark was "stumpfingered" is intriguing. A late forger would be unlikely to know such an uncomplimentary detail about an Evangelist, nor is it likely anyone would just invent such an odd and unusual point. Papias, in what we have of him, does not seem to know this item. So the Prologue did not just copy from Papias.
St. Irenaeus (died c. 200 A.D. ), who had heard St. Polycarp tell what he remembered of the preaching of the Apostle St. John, tells us: "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."
So we have three sources -- Papias, the Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Mark, and St. Irenaeus, all saying Mark wrote from the preaching of St. Peter. A prominent modern scholar, Martin Hengel, at the hardly conservative University of Tübingen, agrees that Mark did write from the preaching of Peter.
However, as we said earlier, we do not need any of these testimonies. All we need to know is that the writers were sincere - obvious, from their concern for their own eternity -and that they had the means to get at the facts, as we showed above.
5. The Synoptic Problem: There are some considerable similarities in many lines in the Synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke. This can be seen by looking at Alan Kurt, Synopsis of the Four Gospels. Greek-English Edition of Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum, with the text of the Revised Standard Version, London, United Bible Societies, 1979. In it we can see the similarities at a glance, but we can also not that there is little word for word correspondence. The most favored theory is called the Two Source Theory. It holds that Mark wrote first, then Matthew and Luke used Mark extensively, but not all the time. Part of the time Matthew and Luke used another source a hypothetical one, called Q (for German Quelle, source). But some respectable scholars deny that Mark wrote first. Some think all three had independent sources, and attribute the similarities to accurate memories in the sources.
6. Marcan Priority: The reasons given for saying Mark wrote first are these: a) Mark 13:14, they claim, is not clear, would not have been clear before the event. So if the event had happened, Mark would have made it clearer. - But Jesus who foreknew all could have described it thus even though the original readers might not have understood. b) The prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem is too clear in Luke, who speaks of an army surrounding Jerusalem. But: The objectors have become dull. In all ancient sieges there was an army surrounding the city. c) Matthew shows no awareness of the bitter strife over the law which we find in Paul. So Matthew must have written later, when the trouble had settled. But: We could equally argue on the same basis that Matthew wrote before the trouble arose in 49 AD. Further, Matthew had a different scope in mind: to give a basic account of the life and teaching of Jesus. Nor does the saying that He has come not to destroy but to fulfill the Law clash with Paul's words about freedom from the Law. Paul merely meant that our keeping the law does not earn salvation. He insists many times if we break the law we will lose our inheritance: 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:5; Rom 3:31. We note Paul speaks much on our inheriting the kingdom. Children do not earn their inheritance, though they could earn to lose it. Cf. Rom 6:23: "For the wages of sin [what we earn] is death; but the free gift of God is life everlasting." This is the same thought as that of Jesus: Unless you become like little children... ."
So the arguments for Marcan priority and a late date for Matthew and Luke do not hold.
On the contrary, my article, "Did St. Luke Imitate the Septuagint": (Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 15, 1982, pp. 40-41 shows Luke was meticulous in his translating of Hebrew originals, but only at some points was he using them. So if Luke copied Mark, why would he have added Semitisms that Mark, a real Semite, did not use? Again, in Mk 12:1-12, the parable of the wicked husbandmen, Mark reports that the master "sent another" and then "he sent another". But Luke adds a Semitism there (20:9-19):"And he added to send another servant... And he added to send a third." On the other hand Mark sometimes has Hebraisms that Luke does not copy: 6:39 and 8:12. Further, as M. Zerwick shows (Graecitas Biblica, ed 4, Rome, 1960, § 361). Luke often uses an Aramaic pattern of a form of the verb to be plus a participle instead of an imperfect indicative. Luke has 50% of all such cases in the entire New Testament. Yet where Mark does have this structure, Luke usually avoids it, though he uses it in places that are parallel to Mark, but in which Mark does not have it.