Basic Scripture

By William G. Most,

(c) Copyright, 1997 by William G. Most

[Sixth Section of HTML version]

Chapter 22: The Gospels

We already saw, in chapter 2, how we can find out for certain which books are inspired: for that we use apologetics. It would be good to reread that section now.

Authors' Names: Even though we do not really need to know the names of the authors of the Gospels - it is enough to know that they had access to the facts (which we showed in chapter 2 above) and were concerned for their own eternity, and so would use the facts carefully. But it is interesting to review what early writers say abut the authors of the Gospels.

The earliest testimony comes from Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis. Around 130 AD he wrote Exegesis of the Lord's Sayings. We depend on Eusebius (3. 39), the first Church historian, writing around the year 300, for several quotations from it. Papias says he inquired from those who had heard the Apostles and disciples of the Lord. St. Irenaeus, who wrote around 200 AD, in his work Against Heresies (5. 33. 4), tells us that Papias was a companion of St. Polycarp, who had known St. John the Apostle personally.

Papias tells 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 attention to one thing, to leave nothing out of what he had heard, and to make no false statements about them."

Some question the value of Papias' testimony, since Eusebius (3. 39) said Papias was a man of small intelligence. But they did not notice the matter about which Eusebius was speaking: He objected that Papias believed in a 1000 years reign of Christ on earth between two resurrections. That error is one many picked up from the difficult chapter 20 of Apocalypse/Revelation. So it really is not anything against the intelligence of Papias if he made the same mistake many others (including St. Justin and St. Irenaeus) also did. Really, not much intelligence is needed to report what ancient witnesses said about the authorship of the Gospels. So many do recognize the value of Papias. In fact, Martin Hengel, Professor at the University of Tubingen, the fountainhead of so many leftist views about Scripture, wrote that he does believe that Mark wrote from the preaching of Peter (In: Studies in the Gospel of Mark,Fortress, Philadelphia, 1985, p. 107).

The so-called AntiMarcionite Prologue to Mark, dating perhaps from around 160 AD, repeats that Mark wrote from the preaching of Peter, and adds the odd detail that Mark was "stumpfingered" - an uncomplimentary detail not likely to have been invented.

Papias also said that, "Matthew collected the sayings [of Jesus] in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as he could." We do not know the relation of this (now lost) Hebrew Matthew to our present Greek Matthew.

St. Irenaeus (3. 1. 1) gives us similar testimony about Mark, and adds that Luke was a follower of Paul, and wrote from his preaching.

In chapter 3 above we answered the chief reasons given for a late date for Matthew and Luke.

Synoptic Problem: The synoptics are Matthew, Mark and Luke. The problem is this: there seem to be considerable similarities in them, even in wording. How can we account for that? For centuries everyone had assumed that the traditional order, which we have just given, was the order of composition.

How great are these similarities? They are considerable. One can get a good look that at them by using a harmony of the Gospels, in which all four Gospels are printed in parallel columns, so that similar items in each are printed on the same level of lines. The most useful of these works is: Alan Kurt, (ed.) 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. To be certain of what similarities there are, of course one should use the Greek.

We do find great similarities in content, and even some similarities in wording. Yet the wording is not always as close as one might suppose. A study of that Synopsis or a similar work will make that clear.

The question is: How do we account for the similarities? The most favored solution for long as been the Two Source Theory. It supposes that Mark wrote first, that Matthew and Luke used his Gospel much of the time, but when Matthew and Luke run largely together, without Mark, there was another source, which has been called Q (for German Quelle,Source).

Out of 661 verses in Mark, about 600 are found substantially in Matthew, and about 350 in Luke. Also, Matthew and Luke have about 236 verses in common that are not found in Mark, but Matthew has about 330 verses not found in the other two.

If we look for verses found in all three: Mark as 330 such verses out of 661; Matthew has 330 out of 1068 and Luke has 330 out of 1150. There are 230 verses common to Matthew and Luke.

But there are also some verses special to each Gospel, which the others do not have: Mark has 50, Matthew has over 315, Luke has over 500 special to himself.

The arguments for and against the Two Source Theory are very technical. Let us comment on the first step, the belief that Mark wrote first. The chief arguments in favor of that view are these: 1)Mark has kept 3 Aramaic expressions, as against one in Matthew; 2)Matthew and Luke seem to speak more reverentially about Jesus than does Mark, in whose Gospel only once is Jesus addressed as Lord. These arguments are interesting, but hardly enough to prove anything.

One of the chief proofs of the Two Source theory is the presence of doublets, i.e., instances where one Gospel gives the same saying twice. It is suggested that this indicates copying -not too intelligently - from two sources. But these are not too impressive. For example in chapter 9, Luke reports a trial mission of the twelve, then in chapter 10 he reports the Lord sent out seventy others. But these are different groups. Further, Jesus was a traveling speaker. As such He would often repeat things, probably in slightly different forms.

There are some impressive arguments against thinking Mark wrote first. A study by this author, "Did St. Luke Imitate the Septuagint?" in Journal for the Study of the New Testament (15, 1982, pp. 30-41) shows many cases in which Luke uses a very odd Semitic structure that in no case at all is found in the parallel passages in Mark. It is the apodotic kai. Here is an example, from Lk 5:1: "And it happened, when the crowd pressed on Him to hear the word of God, and He stood by the lake of Gennesaret." The and does not fit in English, Latin, Greek or even Aramaic. But it is common in Hebrew. Now Luke in his opening verses said he consulted eyewitnesses and written accounts. It is likely he would have met written accounts in Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. So we suggest Luke meant what he said, and he was translating, at some points, Hebrew documents in a slavish fashion, i.e., he brought a Hebrew structure into Greek, where it does not belong. The fact that Luke uses this structure only from 20 to 25% of the time he would have used it if he were translating an all Hebrew document, shows he was using Hebrew only at points. At other points, he writes a good quality of Greek.

Still further, there are various points where Luke adds other Semitisms which are not found in Mark. H. F. D. Sparks comments ("The Semitisms of St. Luke's Gospel," in Journal of Theological Studies,44, 1943, p. 130) that Luke is notable for a "continual rephrasing of St. Mark, in order to add Semitisms." An example is in the parable of the wicked husbandmen. When Mark tells it in 12:1-12, after the first servants are mistreated the master "sent another". But Luke (20:9-19) says "And he added to send another... And he added to send a third." The added reflects the Hebrew idiomatic use of ysf, which Mark, a Hebrew did not use. M. Zerwick (Graecitas Biblica,ed. 4, Romae, Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1960, #361) shows that Luke often uses an Aramaic pattern, a form of the verb to be plus a participle, instead of an imperfect indicative. Luke has 50% of all instances of this in the whole New Testament. Yet, where Mark does have the structure, Luke usually avoids it, but does use it in places parallel to Mark, but where Mark does not have it.

Also, there is the case of the so-called minor agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark, i.e., in some passages found in all three Gospels, Matthew and Luke agree in differing from Mark in small points, e.g., in Mt 21:1-9 and Luke 19:28-37 there are 17 points on which Matthew and Luke agree, but disagree with Mark.

There is much more. As a result, a good number of modern scholars no longer think Mark wrote first.

Some scholars today, e.g., W. F. Albright, and C. S. Mann (Anchor Bible,Matthew, p. li) say it is easier to suppose that Matthew and Luke each used their own sources than to suppose one evangelist saw the other's work, and went in for some radical editorial revision - without the help of a computer.

Genre of the Gospels: It is sometimes said that the Gospels are just "documents of faith." The expression is not wrong, but can be quite misleading. It could imply that we have no proof that the Gospels contain the truth about Jesus, they are just a description of the faith of His followers. We saw in our sketch of apologetics in chapter 2 above that we can get the solid truth about Jesus from them. That truth was and is wanted for the sake of faith, so we may have faith in Him and in His Church. But first, without calling on faith, we showed, in apologetics, that we can get the facts. Only then is there place for faith. So we are far from the really irrational notion that we just decide to believe, with no foundation.

The background helps us: the ancient historians of Greece and Rome were concerned to get the facts. They added interpretations, but did not let them interfere with the facts. Now the tradition of writing among the Hebrews was in a way even more concerned about getting facts. So many Greeks and Romans held cyclic ideas - everything goes in cycles, and then starts all over again. But the Hebrews did not believe in such cycles: history was marching ahead to a goal, the coming of the Messiah. And Christians recognize a central event, the redemption, to which everything else leads up, on which all else depends.

So the Gospels basically belong to the historical genre. We saw this was true because the writers believed their eternity depended on the facts about Jesus, and they had ample opportunity to get the facts. They do at times add interpretations for the sake of faith. But as we saw in chapter 2 above, we can tell the difference. As to the saying," There is no such thing as an uninterpreted report," i.e., one not colored by the subjectivity of the one who reports - that coloring does occur often. But we saw there are some things so directly and simply picked up by eyes and ears that there is no room for distortion, e.g., if a leper stands before Jesus asking to be healed, and He says: "I will it. Be healed," anyone present could see it happen. There could be total fakery, but no other change. And fakery is, as we said, ruled out by the writers' concern for eternity.

The Evangelists did not, however, always present the facts in chronological sequence. They often grouped things, for their own special purposes, e.g., the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is likely to be a grouping of things Jesus said on several different occasions. And parables are often put in groups. Obviously, such things do not at all affect the truth.

Further, as we can learn from Form and Redaction Criticism, which we saw in Chapter 6 above, the way the Apostles and others in the primitive Church reported the saying of Jesus - and the way the Evangelists wrote them down - might not always keep the same wording. It is normal and good for a writer or speaker to adapt the presentation to the current audience. But they would keep the same sense - again, concern for their eternal fate.

The 1964 Instruction,as we saw in chapter 6 above, adds that the Evangelists wrote in the light of their better understanding which they had later. This is obvious. But it would not lead them to falsify anything, e.g., they still portray the Apostles as dull, selfish, slow to catch on. Cf. Jn 2:19-21; 3:22; 6:6; 12;16; 20:9.

Genre of the Infancy Gospels: Some today say that there is little factual content in chapters 1-2 of Matthew and Luke. Especially, Luke just built up a very few facts by using parallels from the Old Testament. A very good answer to this claim comes from John L. McKenzie, far from a conservative, who wrote a review of R. Brown's The Birth of the Messiah,which makes such claims. Even though McKenzie was a friend of Brown's he wrote in a review of the book (National Catholic Reporter,Dec. 2, 1977, p. 10), "One wonders how a gentile convert [Luke]... could have acquired so quickly the mastery of the Greek Old Testament shown in the use of the Old Testament in Luke's infancy narratives... . Luke must have had a source... and as it is hard to think of such a collection of texts without a narrative for them to illustrate, a pre-Lucan infancy narrative is suggested, I beg to submit."

Pope Paul VI spoke strongly on the historicity of these chapters (Allocution of Dec. 28, 1966, Insegnamenti di Paolo VI. IV. pp. 678-79, Vatican Press, 1966). He complained that some "try to diminish the historical value of the Gospels... especially those that refer to the birth of Jesus and His infancy... these pages are not inventions of people's fancy, but ... they speak the truth... . The authority of the Council has not pronounced differently on this: 'The Sacred Authors wrote... always in such a way that they reported on Jesus with sincerity and truth [Constitution on Divine Revelation # 19]. '" Lumem Gentium # 57 speaks in a most factual way on these events. Pope John Paul II in a General Audience of January 18, 1988 said: "To identify the source of the infancy narrative, one must go back to St. Luke's remark: 'Mary kept all these things pondering them in her heart. '... Mary... could bear witness after Christ's death and resurrection, in regard to what concerned herself and her role as Mother, precisely in the apostolic period when the New Testament texts were being written... ." It is quite obvious that she would be the prime source. Yet some today say, without foundation, that she was not.

The study mentioned of apodotic kai in Luke shows his extreme care for accuracy: how then could he, right after saying he consulted eyewitnesses and written accounts, go into something so loose and fanciful as the objectors would claim?

The objections raised against the historicity of the infancy narratives are mostly inane. They say that according to Matthew, Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem and had their home there. But Luke said they were visitors to Bethlehem without a place to stay. The basis for this strange remark is that in Mt 2:11, the Magi found Mary and Joseph and Jesus in a house. But: would Joseph stay in a stable long? Of courses not, he would soon find lodging.

It is also said that the flight into Egypt cannot be fitted with Luke's account. But it can easily fit: First, the Magi did not come on the day of Jesus' birth - the fact that Herod ordered a slaughter of babies 2 yrs old and under suppose quite a bit of time even though he would play it safe and kill with a margin. So before the Magi came there was time for the circumcision and presentation in the temple, then the flight to Egypt, and after some time, the return.

The only objection worth considering is about the "census" at the time of the birth of Jesus. However, new research by E. L. Martin (The Birth of Christ Recalculated,Academy for Scriptural Knowledge, Box 5000, Portland, Or. 97225) provides the solution. All estimates of the date of Jesus' birth depend on a statement by the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, that Herod died just after an eclipse of the moon. Martin shows that only if we pick the eclipse of Jan 10, 1 BC will there be enough time for all the events Josephus describes between the death of Herod and the next Passover. Further, Emperor Augustus was to get the great title, Father of His Country, in 2 B.C. That was known far in advance, so the actual governor of the Holy Land would have gone to Rome for the celebration, probably in the fall of 3 BC. (sailing on the Mediterranean was too dangerous in the winter, after Nov. 1). We know from secular sources that in 3 BC people were taking an oath of allegiance to Augustus, in preparation for the great event. So that was the apographe - a broad word, which can mean census, or any sort of registration. The governor needed to have a competent man to manage affairs in his absence. Quirinius had just before that time finished a successful war up north. So he was put in charge. St. Luke's Greek does not call him governor, but says he was governing. So the problem is easily solved.

The genealogies in the infancy Gospels have caused much discussion, since they seem not to agree. One can bring about agreement by supposing a number of Levirate marriages - that is marriages following the Old Testament law that if a married man died with no children, his brother should take his wife to raise up children to continue his line. But this is not really necessary. We now know that ancient genealogies are often constructed not as family trees, but were artificial structure, to bring out something else: Cf. R. Wilson, in Biblical Archaeologist,42, Winter, 1979, pp. 11- 22.

Jesus chose to remain in a hidden life with His Mother, the Mother of God, until about age 30. His conduct then was so unobtrusive that when He finally did begin to display His power, the townspeople found it hard to accept. He wanted to show the value our Father attaches to a good family life lived in even an ordinary way.

Faith Holding on in the Dark: At age 12 He caused grief to Mary and Joseph by remaining behind in the Temple without telling them. They did not understand His response - that need not mean they did not know who He was. No, it was the departure from the compliant way of life He had been living. He did this as part of a divine pattern, in which God puts people into situations in which it seems impossible to believe or to hold on to His will, such as He did to Abraham, when He ordered him to sacrifice Isaac, even though He had promised Abraham would be the father of a great nation by Isaac. Another instance was His promise of the Eucharist in John 6 - He could have easily explained He would change bread and wine into His body and blood, so there would be no cannabilism. But He wanted them to hold on in the dark. If a person does that, his/her will must adhere powerfully to the divine will - and in that lies perfection. The same pattern is found in His reply to His Mother at Cana, when He seemed to reject her request. She understood, however, in faith, and the result was that in response to her intercession, He worked His first miracle, advancing the hour. And the pattern appeared again when in a crowd He said that he who does the will of His Father is Father, Mother, and brother to Him (Mk 3:31-35 - in this incident He was teaching dramatically that out of two great dignities, to hear the word of God and keep it is even greater than to be the physical Mother of God. Of course, she was at the peak in both categories).

Problem of Mark 3:20-35: The entire passage in which this last incident lies, Mk 3:20-35, has been the occasion of some really outrageous comments. There are three segments to this passage: 1) 20-21: The hoi par' autou (could be His relatives, friends, those about Him) see He is preaching so intently to the crowds that He does not take time to eat. They go out to grab (kratesai) him, by force it seems. 2)22-30: Scribes from Jerusalem say that He casts out devils by the prince of devils. He answers them, says that is the unforgivable sin; 3)31-35: His Mother and "brothers" come to a crowd to which He is speaking. Their presence is announced to Him. He replies: Who is my Mother and my brothers?... He who does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother."

Some incredibly outrageous comments have been made in print about these three passages. The commentators in question assume that the group in segment 1 is the same as that in segment 3. That may be true, but cannot be proved. Form Criticism shows us that Gospel passages may be put together out of originally separate units. The second segment is a strange interlude, and makes it not at all certain it is the same group with segments 1 and 3. But, some commentators insist, it is the same group, and so His Mother did not believe in Him! One commentator even said she was outside the sphere of salvation!

As we said, it is not certain she was in the group of segment 1 - the hoi par autou is not very definite. Even if she were, could we be sure she did not believe in Him? Very ordinary Mothers stand up for their sons even when they are clearly guilty. She would be less than ordinary! Could she not have gone along - if indeed she did - to hold down the others? That is quite plausible.

But most of all, St. Luke's Gospel presents her, in the annunciation passage, as the first believer. Vatican II endorses this in Lumem Gentium # 56 and says that even at the start, "she totally dedicated herself to the person and work of her Son." The blind commentators ignore the Council, about which they speak so favorably otherwise. They say each Evangelist may have his own scope and approach. True. But they cannot make one Evangelist contradict another, for the chief author of all Scripture is the one Holy Spirit: cf. Vatican II, Dei Verbum # 12. Of course when many today attribute all kinds of errors to Scripture, perhaps this is not too strange.

We already explained above, that His words about who are His mother and His brothers were just a dramatic way of teaching that out of two dignities - that of Mother of God, and that of hearing the word and keeping it - the second is the greater. She was at the peak in both classes: Lumem Gentium # 58.

Our Lady's Knowledge about Jesus: Still further, when did she come to know who He was? At the annunciation itself, as soon as the angel said her Son would reign over the house of Jacob forever, any ordinary Jew - not just the one full of grace - would know that it was the Messiah, for only He was to reign forever, according to the usual Jewish belief of the day. Then all the Messianic prophecies - which even the Targums understood - would come to her mind, if not at the same moment, yet surely in a short while, as she was "pondering in her heart."

Brothers of Jesus: As to His "brothers" in Mk 3:31, any competent scholar knows that Hebrew ah means more than blood brothers - almost any relative can be meant. Lot, nephew of Abraham (Gen 11:27-31), is called his brother in Gen 13:8 and 14:14-16, Really, Hebrew had no word for cousin, indeed was very poor in words for specific relationships of any kind. Further, Mk 6:3 names the following as "brothers" of Jesus: James, Joses, Judas and Simon. Mt. 13:55 gives the same names. But we see from Mk 15:40 that at the cross was Mary the Mother of James and Joseph (Joses). From which we gather that James and Joses had a different Mother, not Mary the Mother of Jesus (cf. also Mt 27:56. Of course, the decision of the Church is the most basic reason for knowing they were not sons of Mary the Mother of Jesus, for the Church teaches she was aeiparthenos, ever-virgin, in conceiving, in giving birth, in the time after His birth.

A further objection: Greek did have words for cousins etc? So adelphos in the Greek Gospels must mean blood brother. Reply: The LXX was written in Greek, yet it uses calls Lot a brother of Abraham. Often in reading St. Paul we must look to the underlying Hebrew word in his mind in order to understand the Greek, e.g., Paul in Romans 9 cites Malachi: "I have loved Jacob and hated Esau." We must see the Hebrew lack of degrees of comparison here, even though Paul wrote Greek, which did have them, and the LXX for Malachi also was in Greek. (The expression means: love one more, the other less). Paul often uses the word know in the sense of Hebrew yada. And there are numerous other examples.



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