The Qur'an and Science - Maurice Bucaille
The Four Gospels.
Sources and History.
In the writings that come
from the early stages of Christianity, the Gospels are not
mentioned until long after the works of Paul. It was not until
the middle of the Second century A.D., after 140 A.D.
The Gospels, later to become official, i.e. canonic, did not become known until fairly late, even though they were completed at the beginning of the Second century A.D. According to the Ecumenical Translation, stories belonging to them began to be quoted around the middle of the Second century A.D. Nevertheless, "it is nearly always difficult to decide whether the quotations come from written texts that the authors had next to them or if the latter were content to evoke the memory of fragments of the oral tradition."
"Before 140 A.D." we read in
the commentaries this translation of the Bible contains, "there
The Gospels did not form a complete whole 'very early on'; it did not happen until more than a century after the end of Jesus's mission. The Ecumenical Translation of the Bible estimates the date the four Gospels acquired the status of canonic literature at around 170 A.D.
Justin's statement which calls the authors 'Apostles' is not acceptable either, as we shall see.
As far as the date the Gospels were written is concerned, A. Tricot states that Matthew's, Mark's and Luke's Gospels were written before 70 A.D.: but this is not acceptable, except perhaps for Mark. Following many others, this commentator goes out of his way to present the authors of the Gospels as the apostles or the companions of Jesus. For this reason he suggests dates of writing that place them very near to the time Jesus lived. As for John, whom A. Tricot has us believe lived until roughly 100 A.D., Christians have always been used to seeing him depicted as being very near to Jesus on ceremonial occasions. It is very difficult however to assert that he is the author of the Gospel that bears his name. For A. Tricot, as for other commentators, the Apostle John (like Matthew) was the officially qualified witness of the facts he recounts, although the majority of critics do not support the hypothesis which says he wrote the fourth Gospel.
If however the four Gospels
in question cannot reasonably be regarded as the 'Memoirs' of
the apostles or companions of Jesus, where do they come from?
Culmann, in his book The
New Testament (Le Nouveau Testament), says of this that
the evangelists were only the "spokesmen of the early Christian
community which wrote
The same author continues as follows:
"It must be noted that the needs of preaching, worship and teaching, more than biographical considerations, were what guided the early community when it wrote down the tradition of the life of Jesus. The apostles illustrated the truth of the faith they were preaching by describing the events in the life of Jesus. Their sermons are what caused the descriptions to be written down. The sayings of Jesus were transmitted, in particular, in the teaching of the catechism of the early Church."
This is exactly how the
commentators of the Ecumenical Translation of the Bible
(Traduction oecuménique de la Bible) describe the writing of the
Gospels: the formation of an oral tradition influenced by the
preachings of Jesus's disciples and other preachers; the
preservation by preaching
This position has been
collectively adopted by more than one hundred experts in the
"Nobody can overlook the fact that, among all the Scriptures, even those of the New Testament, the Gospels have a well-deserved position of superiority. This is by virtue of the fact that they represent the most pre-eminent witness to the life and teachings of the Incarnate Word, Our Saviour. At all times and in all places the Church has maintained and still maintains the apostolic origin of the four Gospels. What the apostles actually preached on Christ's orders, both they and the men in their following subsequently transmitted, with the divine inspiration of the Spirit, in writings which are the foundation of the faith, i.e. the fourfold Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John."
"Our Holy Mother, the Church, has firmly maintained and still maintains with the greatest constancy, that these four Gospels, which it unhesitatingly confirms are historically authentic, faithfully transmit what Jesus, Son Of God, actually did and taught during his life among men for their eternal salvation until the day when He was taken up into the heavens. . . . The sacred authors therefore composed the four Gospels in such a way as to always give us true and frank information on the life of Jesus".
This is an unambiguous affirmation of the fidelity with which the Gospels transmit the acts and sayings of Jesus.
There is hardly any compatibility between the Council's affirmation and what the authors quoted above claim. In particular the following:
The Gospels "are not to be taken literally" they are "writings suited to an occasion" or "combat writings". Their authors "are writing down the traditions of their own community concerning Jesus". (Father Kannengiesser).
The Gospels are texts which "are suitable for various circles, meet the needs of the Church, explain observations on the Scriptures, correct errors and even, on occasion, answer adversaries' objections. Thus, the evangelists, each according to his own outlook, have collected and recorded in writing the material given to them by the oral tradition". (Ecumenical Translation of the Bible).
It is quite clear that we are here faced with contradictory statements: the declaration of the Council on the one hand, and more recently adopted attitudes on the other. According to the declaration of the Second Vatican Council, a faithful account of the actions and words of Jesus is to be found in the Gospels; but it is impossible to reconcile this with the existence in the text of contradictions, improbabilities, things which are materially impossible or statements which run contrary to firmly established reality.
If, on the other hand, one chooses to regard the Gospels as expressing the personal point of view of those who collected the oral traditions that belonged to various communities, or as writings suited to an occasion or combat-writings, it does not come as a surprise to find faults in the Gospels. All these faults are the sign that they were written by men in circumstances such as these. The writers may have been quite sincere, even though they relate facts without doubting their inaccuracy. They provide us with descriptions which contradict other authors' narrations, or are influenced by reasons of religious rivalry between communities. They therefore present stories about the life of Jesus from a completely different angle than their adversaries.
It has already been shown how the historical context is in harmony with the second approach to the Gospels. The data we have on the texts themselves definitively confirms it.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW
Matthew's is the first of the four Gospels as they appear in the New Testament. This position is perfectly justified by the fact that it is a prolongation, as it were, of the Old Testament. It was written to show that "Jesus fulfilled the history of Israel", as the commentators of the Ecumenical Translation of the Bible note and on which we shall be drawing heavily. To do BO, Matthew constantly refers to quotations from the Old Testament which show how Jesus acted as if he were the Messiah the Jews were awaiting.
This Gospel begins with a genealogy of Jesus. Matthew traces it back to Abraham via David. We shall presently see the fault in the text that most commentators silently ignore. Matthew's obvious intention was nevertheless to indicate the general tenor of his work straight away by establishing this line of descendants. The author continues the same line of thought by constantly bringing to the forefront Jesus's attitude toward Jewish law, the main principles of which (praying, fasting, and dispensing charity) are summarized here.
Jesus addresses His teachings
first and foremost to His own people. This is how He speaks to
the twelve Apostles "go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no
town of the Samaritans but go rather to the lost
sheep of the house of Israel." (Matthew 10, 5-6). "I was sent
only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel". (Matthew 15,
24). At the end of his Gospel, in second place, Matthew extends
the apostolic mission of Jesus's first disciples to all nations.
He makes Jesus give the following order.
Tricot says of this Gospel,
"Beneath its Greek garb, the flesh and bones of this book are
On the basis of these
observations alone, the origins of Matthew's Gospel may be
There are also political factors to be found in the text. The Roman occupation of Palestine naturally heightened the desire of this country to see itself liberated. They prayed for God to intervene in favour of the people He had chosen among all others, and as their omnipotent sovereign who could give direct support to the affairs of men, as He had already done many times in the course of history.
What sort of person was Matthew? Let us say straight away that he is no longer acknowledged to be one of Jesus's companions. A. Tricot nevertheless presents him as such in his commentary to the translation of the New Testament, 1960: "Matthew alias, Levi, was a customs officer employed at the tollgate or customs house at Capharnaum when Jesus called him to be one of His disciples." This is the opinion of the Fathers of the Church, Origen, Jerome and Epiphanes. This opinion is no longer held today. One point which is uncontested is that the author is writing "for people who speak Greek, but nevertheless know Jewish customs and the Aramaic language."
It would seem that for the
commentators of the Ecumenical Translation,
"It is normally considered to have been written in Syria, perhaps at Antioch (. . .), or in Phoenicia, because a great many Jews lived in these countries. (. . .) we have indications of a polemic against the orthodox Judaism of the Synagogue and the Pharasees such as was manifested at the synagogal assembly at Jamina circa 80 A.D." In such conditions, there are many authors who date the first of the Gospels at about 80-90 A.D., perhaps also a little earlier. it is not possible to be absolutely definite about this . . . since we do not know the author's exact name, we must be satisfied with a few outlines traced in the Gospel itself. the author can be recognized by his profession. He is well-versed in Jewish writings and traditions. He knows, respects, but vigorously challenges the religious leaders of his people. He is a past master in the art of teaching and making Jesus understandable to his listeners. He always insists on the practical consequences of his teachings. He would fit fairly well the description of an educated Jew turned Christian; a householder "who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" as Matthew says (13,52). This is a long way from the civil servant at Capharnaum, whom Mark and Luke call Levi, and who had become one of the twelve Apostles . . .
Everyone agrees in thinking that Matthew wrote his Gospel using the same sources as Mark and Luke. His narration is, as we shall see, different on several essential points. In spite of this, Matthew borrowed heavily from Mark's Gospel although the latter was not one of Jesus's disciples (O. Culmann).
Matthew takes very serious liberties with the text. We shall see this when we discuss the Old Testament in relation to the genealogy of Jesus which is placed at the beginning of his Gospel.
He inserts into his book descriptions which are quite literally incredible. This is the adjective used in the work mentioned above by Father Kannengiesser referring to an episode in the Resurrection. the episode of the guard. He points out the improbability of the story referring to military guards at the tomb, "these Gentile soldiers" who "report, not to their hierarchical superiors, but to the high priests who pay them to tell lies". He adds however: "One must not laugh at him because Matthew's intention was extremely serious. In his own way he incorporates ancient data from the oral tradition into his written work. The scenario is nevertheless worthy of Jesus Christ Superstar."
Let us not forget that this opinion on Matthew comes from an eminent theologian teaching at the Catholic Institute of Paris (Institut Catholique de Paris).
Matthew relates in his narration the events accompanying the death of Jesus. They are another example of his imagination.
"And behold, the curtain of
the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth
This passage from Matthew
(27, 51-53) has no corresponding passage in the other Gospels.
The most notable improbability is perhaps to be found in Matthew. It is the most difficult to rationalize of all that the Gospel authors claim Jesus said. He relates in chapter 12, 38-40 the episode concerning Jonah's sign:
Jesus was among the scribes and pharisees who addressed him in the following terms:
"Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you. But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."
Jesus therefore proclaims
that he will stay in the earth three days and three nights. So
frequently ignore this episode. Father Roguet nevertheless
points out this improbability when he notes that Jesus "only
stayed in the tomb" three days (one of them complete)
Apart from these
improbabilities, what mostly distinguishes Matthew's Gospel is
that it is the work of
This is the shortest of the four Gospels. It is also the oldest, but in spite of this it is not a book written by an apostle. At best it was written by an apostle's disciple.
O. Culmann has written that
he does not consider Mark to be a disciple of Jesus.
The paucity of information on
this point has led commentators to dwell on details that seem
rather extravagant: using the pretext, for example, that Mark
was the only evangelist to relate in his description of the
Passion the story of the young man who had nothing but a linen
cloth about his body and, when seized, left the linen cloth and
ran away naked
O. Culmann considers that "many turns of phrase corroborate the hypothesis that the author was of Jewish origin," but the presence of Latin expressions might suggest that he had written his Gospel in Rome. "He addresses himself moreover to Christians not living in Palestine and is careful to explain the Aramic expressions he uses."
Tradition has indeed tended
to see Mark as Peter's companion in Rome. It is founded on the
final section of Peter's first letter (always supposing that he
was indeed the author) . Peter wrote in his letter. "The
community which is at Babylon, which is likewise chosen, sends
you greetings; and so does my son Mark." "By Babylon, what is
probably meant is Rome" we read in the commentary to the
Ecumenical Translation. From this, the commentators then imagine
themselves authorized to conclude that Mark, who was supposed to
have been with Peter in Rome, was the Evangelist . . .One
wonders whether it was not the same line of reasoning that led
Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis in circa 150 A.D.,
Seen from this point of view, the composition of Mark's Gospel could be placed after Peter's death, i.e. at between 65 and 70 A.D. for the Ecumenical Translation and circa 70 A.D. for O. Culmann.
The text itself unquestionably reveals a major flaw. it is written with a total disregard to chronology. Mark therefore places, at the beginning of his narration (1, 16-20), the episode of the four fishermen whom Jesus leads to follow him by simply saying "I will make you become fishers of men", though they do not even know Him. The evangelist shows, among other things, a complete lack of plausibility.
As Father Roguet has said,
Mark is 'a clumsy writer', 'the weakest of all the evangelists';
Here is the literal translation:
"And he went up into the
hills, and called to him those whom he desired; and they came to
He contradicts Matthew and
Luke, as has already been noted above, with regard to the sign
"The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, 'Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.' And he left them, and getting into the boat again he departed to the other side."
There can be no doubt that this is an affirmation coming from Jesus Himself about his intention not to commit any act which might appear supernatural. Therefore the commentators of the Ecumenical Translation, who are surprised that Luke says Jesus will only give one sign (the sign of Jonah; see Matthew's Gospel) , consider it 'paradoxical' that Mark should say "no sign shall be given to this generation" seeing, as they note, the "miracles that Jesus himself gives as a sign" (Luke 7,22 and 11,20).
Mark's Gospel as a whole is officially recognised as being canonic. All the same, the final section of Mark's Gospel (16,1920) is considered by modem authors to have been tacked on to the basic work: the Ecumenical Translation is quite explicit about this.
This final section is not contained in the two oldest complete manuscripts of the Gospels, the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus that date from the Fourth century A.D. O. Culmann notes on this subject that: "More recent Greek manuscripts and certain versions at this point added a conclusion on appearances which is not drawn from Mark but from the other Gospels." In fact, the versions of this added ending are very numerous. In the texts there are long and short versions (both are reproduced in the Bible, Revised Standard Version, 1952). Sometimes the long version has some additional material.
Father Kannengiesser makes the following comments on the ending. "The last verses must have been surpressed when his work was officially received (or the popular version of it) in the community that guaranteed its validity. Neither Matthew, Luke or a fortiori John saw the missing section. Nevertheless, the gap was unacceptable. A long time afterwards, when the writings of Matthew, Luke and John, all of them similar, had been in circulation, a worthy ending to Mark was composed. Its elements were taken from sources throughout the other Gospels. It would be easy to recognise the pieces of the puzzle by enumerating Mark (16,9-20). One would gain a more concrete idea of the free way in which the literary genre of the evangelic narration was handled until the beginnings of the Second century A.D."
What a blunt admission is provided for us here, in the thoughts of a great theologian, that human manipulation exists in the texts of the Scriptures!
For O. Culmann, Luke is a
'chronicler', and for Father Kannengiesser he is a 'true
novelist'. In his prologue to Theophilus, Luke warns us that he,
in his turn, following on from others who have written accounts
concerning Jesus, is going to write a narrative of the same
facts using the accounts and information of
eyewitnesses-implying that he himself is not one-including
"Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having informed myself about all things from their beginnings, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning things of which you have been informed."
From the very first line one can see all that separates Luke from the 'scribbler' Mark to whose work we have just referred. Luke's Gospel is incontestably a literary work written in classical Greek free from any barbarisms.
Luke was a cultivated Gentile
convert to Christianity. His attitude towards the Jews is
immediately apparent. As O. Culmann points out, Luke leaves out
Mark's most Judaic verses and highlights the Jews' incredulity
at Jesus's words, throwing into relief his good relations with
the Samaritans, whom the Jews detested. Matthew, on the other
hand, has Jesus ask the apostles to flee from them. This is just
one of many striking examples of the fact that the evangelists
make Jesus say whatever suits their own personal outlook. They
probably do so with sincere conviction. They give us the version
of Jesus's words that is adapted to the point of view of their
own community. How can one deny in the face of such evidence
that the Gospels are 'combat writings' or 'writings suited to an
occasion', as has been mentioned already? The comparison between
the general tone of Luke's Gospel and Matthew's
Who was Luke? An attempt has been made to identify him with the physician of the same name referred to by Paul in several of his letters. The Ecumenical Translation notes that "several commentators have found the medical occupation of the author of this Gospel confirmed by the precision with which he describes the sick". This assessment is in fact exaggerated out of all proportion. Luke does not properly speaking 'describe' things of this kind; "the vocabulary he uses is that of a cultivated man of his time". There was a Luke who was Paul's travelling companion, but was he the same person? O. Culmann thinks he was.
The date of Luke's Gospel can be estimated according to several factors: Luke used Mark's and Matthew's Gospels. From what we read in the Ecumenical Translation, it seems that he witnessed the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by Titus's armies in 70 A.D. The Gospel probably dates from after this time. Present-day critics situate the time it was written at .circa 80-90 A.D., but several place it at an even earlier date.
The various narrations in
Luke show important differences when compared to his
The descriptions of Jesus's childhood are unique to Luke's Gospel. Matthew describes Jesus's childhood differently from Luke, and Mark does not mention it at all.
Matthew and Luke both provide
different genealogies of Jesus: the contradictions are so large
Jesus's mission is described differently on many points by Luke, Matthew and Mark.
An event of such great importance to Christians as the institution of the Eucharist gives rise to variations between Luke and the other two evangelists. Father Roguet notes in his book Initiation to the Gospel (Initiation à l'Evangile) page 75, that the words used to institute the Eucharist are reported by Luke (22,19-24) in a form very different from the wording in Matthew (26,26-29) and in Mark (14,22-24) which is almost identical.
"On the contrary" he writes, "the wording transmitted by Luke is very similar to that evoked by Saint Paul" (First Letter to the Corinthians, 11,23-25) .
As we have seen, in his Gospel, Luke expresses ideas on the subject of Jesus's Ascension which contradict what he says in the Acts of the Apostles. He is recognized as their author and they form an integral part of the New Testament. In his Gospel he situates the Ascension on Easter Day, and in the Acts forty days later. We already know to what strange commentaries this contradiction has led Christian experts in exegesis.
Commentators wishing to be
objective, such as those of the Ecumenical Translation of the
John's Gospel is radically different from the three others; to such an extent indeed that Father Roguet in his book Initiation to the Gospel (Initiation à l'Evangile), having commented on the other three, immediately evokes a startling image for the fourth. He calls it , different world'. It is indeed a unique book; different in the arrangement and choice of subject, description and speech; different in its style, geography, chronology; there are even differences in theological outlook (O. Culmann). Jesus's words are therefore differently recorded by John from the other evangelists: Father Roguet notes on this that whereas the synoptics record Jesus's words in a style that is "striking, much nearer to the oral style", in John all is meditation; to such an extent indeed that "one sometimes wonders if Jesus is still speaking or whether His ideas have not imperceptibly been extended by the Evangelist's own thoughts".
Who was the author? This is a highly debated question and extremely varying opinions have been expressed on this subject.
A. Tricot and Father Roguet belong to a camp that does not have the slightest misgivings: John's Gospel is the work of an eyewitness, its author is John, son of Zebedee and brother of James. Many details are known about this apostle and are set out in works for mass publication. Popular iconography puts him near Jesus, as in the Last Supper prior to the Passion. Who could imagine that John's Gospel was not the work of John the Apostle whose figure is so familiar?
The fact that the fourth
Gospel was written so late is not a serious argument against
Father Kannengiesser, in his
study on the Resurrection, arrives at the conclusion that none
of the New Testament authors, save Paul, can claim to have been
eyewitnesses to Jesus's Resurrection. John nevertheless related
the appearance to a number of the assembled apostles, of which
he was probably
O. Culmann in his work The New Testament does not subscribe to this view.
The Ecumenical Translation of the Bible states that the majority of critics do not accept the hypothesis that the Gospel was written by John, although this possibility cannot be entirely ruled out. Everything points however towards the fact that the text we know today had several authors: "It is probable that the Gospel as it stands today was put into circulation by the author's disciples who added chapter 21 and very likely several annotations (i.e. 4,2 and perhaps 4,1; 4,44; 7,37b; 11,2; 19,35). With regard to the story of the adulterous woman (7,53-8,11), everyone agrees that it is a fragment of unknown origin inserted later (but nevertheless belonging to canonic Scripture)". Passage 19,35 appears as a 'signature' of an 'eyewitness' (O. Culmann), the only explicit signature in the whole of John's Gospel; but commentators believe that it was probably added later.
O. Culmann thinks that latter additions are obvious in this Gospel; such as chapter 21 which is probably the work of a "disciple who may well have made slight alterations to the main body of the Gospel".
It is not necessary to mention all the hypotheses suggested by experts in exegesis. The remarks recorded here made by the most eminent Christian writers on the questions of the authorship of the fourth Gospel are sufficient to show the extent of the confusion reigning on the subject of its authorship.
The historical value of John's stories has been contested to a great extent. The discrepancy between them and the other three Gospels is quite blatant. O. Culman offers an explanation for this; he sees in John a different theological point of view from the other evangelists. This aim "directs the choice of stories from the Logia recorded, as well as the way in which they are reproduced . . . Thus the author often prolongs the lines and makes the historical Jesus say what the Holy Spirit Itself revealed to Him". This, for the exegete in question, is the reason for the discrepancies.
It is of course quite conceivable that John, who was writing after the other evangelists, should have chosen certain stories suitable for illustrating his own theories. One should not be surprised by the fact that certain descriptions contained in the other Gospels are missing in John. The Ecumenical Translation picks out a certain number of such instances (page 282). Certain gaps hardly seem credible however, like the fact that the Institution of the Eucharist is not described. It is unthinkable that an episode so basic to Christianity, one indeed that was to be the mainstay of its liturgy, i.e. the mass, should not be mentioned by John, the most pre-eminently meditative evangelist. The fact is, he limits himself, in the narrative of the supper prior to the Passion, to simply describing the washing of the disciples' feet, the prediction of Judas's betrayal and Peter's denial.
In contrast to this, there
are stories which are unique to John and not present in the
Another important point on which John's Gospel differs from the other three is in the duration of Jesus's mission. Mark, Matthew and Luke place it over a period of one year. John spreads it over two years. O. Culmann notes this fact. On this subject the Ecumenical Translation expresses the following .
"The synoptics describe a long period in Galilee followed by a march that was more or less prolonged towards Judea, and finally a brief stay in Jerusalem. John, on the other hand, describes frequent journeys from one area to another and mentions a long stay in Judea, especially in Jerusalem (1,19-51; 2,13-3,36; 5,1-47; 14,20-31). He mentions several Passover celebrations (2,13; 5,1; 6,4; 11,55) and thus suggests a ministry that lasted more than two years".
Which one of them should one believe-Mark, Matthew, Luke or John?
The general outline that has been given here of the Gospels and which emerges from a critical examination of the texts tends to make one think of a literature which is "disjointed, with a plan that lacks continuity" and "seemingly insuperable contradictions". These are the terms used in the judgment passed on them by the commentators of the Ecumenical Translation of the Bible. It is important to refer to their authority because the consequences of an appraisal of this subject are extremely serious. It has already been seen how a few notions concerning the religious history of the time when the Gospels were written helped to explain certain disconcerting aspects of this literature apparent to the thoughtful reader. It is necessary to continue, however, and ascertain what present-day works can tell us about the sources the Evangelists drew on when writing their texts. It is also interesting to see whether the history of the texts once they were established can help to explain certain aspects they present today.
The problem of sources was approached in a very simplistic fashion at the time of the Fathers of the Church. In the early centuries of Christianity, the only source available was the Gospel that the complete manuscripts provided first, i.e. Matthew's Gospel. The problem of sources only concerned Mark and Luke because John constituted a quite separate case. Saint Augustine held that Mark, who appears second in the traditional order of presentation, had been inspired by Matthew and had summarized his work. He further considered that Luke, who comes third in the manuscripts, had used data from both; his prologue suggests this, and has already been discussed.
The experts in exegesis at this period were as able as we are to estimate the degree of corroboration between the texts and find a large number of verses common to two or three synoptics. Today, the commentators of the Ecumenical Translation of the Bible provide the following figures:
verses common to all three
synoptics -------------- 330
The verses unique to each of the first three Gospels are as follows: Matthew 330, Mark 53, and Luke 500.
From the Fathers of the Church until the end of the Eighteenth century A.D., one and a half millenia passed without any new problems being raised on the sources of the evangelists: people continued to follow tradition. It was not until modem times that it was realized, on the basis of these data, how each evangelist had taken material found in the others and compiled his own specific narration guided by his own personal views. Great weight was attached to actual collection of material for the narration. It came from the oral traditions of the communities from which it originated on the one hand, and from a common written Aramaic source that has not been rediscovered on the other. This written source could have formed a compact mass or have been composed of many fragments of different narrations used by each evangelist to construct his own original work.
More intensive studies in
circa the last hundred years have led to theories which are more
detailed and in time will become even more complicated. The
first of the modem theories is the so-called 'Holtzmann Two
Sources Theory', (1863). O. Culmann and the Ecumenical
Translation explain that, according to this theory, Matthew and
Luke may have been inspired by Mark on the one hand and on the
other by a common document which has since been lost. The first
two moreover each had his own sources. This leads to the
Culmann criticises the above on the following points:
1. Mark's work, used by both Luke and Matthew, was probably not the author's Gospel but an earlier version.
2. The diagram does not lay enough emphasis on the oral tradition. This appears to be of paramount importance because it alone preserved Jesus's words and the descriptions of his mission during a period of thirty or forty years, as each of the Evangelists was only the spokesman for the Christian community which wrote down the oral tradition.
This is how it is possible to conclude that the Gospels we possess today are a reflection of what the early Christian communities knew of Jesus's life and ministry. They also mirror their beliefs and theological ideas, of which the evangelists were the spokesmen.
The latest studies in textual criticism on the sources of the Gospels have clearly shown an even more complicated formation process of the texts. A book by Fathers Benoit and Boismard, both professors at the Biblical School of Jerusalem (1972-1973), called the Synopsis of the Four Gospels (Synopse des quatres Evangiles) stresses the evolution of the text in stages parallel to the evolution of the tradition. This implies the conquences set out by Father Benoit in his introduction to Father Boismard's part of the work. He presents them in the following terms:
"(. . .) the wording and form of description that result from a long evolution of tradition are not as authentic as in the original. some readers of this work will perhaps be surprised or embarrassed to learn that certain of Jesus's sayings, parables, or predictions of His destiny were not expressed in the way we read them today, but were altered and adapted by those who transmitted them to us. This may come as a source of amazement and even scandal to those not used to this kind of historical investigation."
The alterations and adaptations to the texts made by those transmitting them to us were done in a way that Father Boismard explains by means of a highly complex diagram. It is a development of the so-called 'Two Sources Theory', and is the product of examination and comparison of the texts which it is not possible to summarize here. Those readers who are interested in obtaining further details should consult the original work published by Les Editions du Cerf, Paris.
Four basic documents-A, B, C
and Q-represent the original sources of the Gospels
Document A comes from a
Judeo-Christian source. Matthew and Mark were inspired by it.
None of these basic documents led to the production of the definitive texts we know today. Between them and the final version lay the intermediate versions: Intermediate Matthew, Intermediate Mark, Intermediate Luke and Intermediate John. These four intermediate documents were to lead to the final versions of the four Gospels, as well as to inspire the final corresponding versions of other Gospels. One only has to consult the diagram to see the intricate relationships the author has revealed.
The results of this scriptural research are of great importance. They show how the Gospel texts not only have a history (to be discussed later) but also a 'pre-history', to use Father Boismard's expression. What is meant is that before the final versions appeared, they underwent alterations at the Intermediate Document stage. Thus it is possible to explain, for example, how a well-known story from Jesus's life, such as the miracle catch of fish, is shown in Luke to be an event that happened during His life, and in John to be one of His appearances after His Resurrection.
The conclusion to be drawn from the above is that when we read the Gospel, we can no longer be at all sure that we are reading Jesus's word. Father Benoit addresses himself to the readers of the Gospel by warning them and giving them the following compensation: "If the reader is obliged in more than one case to give up the notion of hearing Jesus's voice directly, he still hears the voice of the Church and he relies upon it as the divinely appointed interpreter of the Master who long ago spoke to us on earth and who now speaks to us in His glory".
How can one reconcile this formal statement of the inauthenticity of certain texts with the phrase used in the dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation by the Second Vatican Council assuring us to the contrary, i.e. the faithful transmission of Jesus's words: "These four Gospels, which it (the Church) unhesitatingly confirms are historically authentic, faithfully transmit what Jesus, Son of God, actually did and taught during his life among men for their eternal salvation, until the day when he was taken up into the heavens"?
It is quite clear that the work of the Biblical School of Jerusalem flatly contradicts the Council's declaration.
M. E. BOISMARD
HISTORY OF THE TEXTS
One would be mistaken in thinking that once the Gospels were written they constituted the basic Scriptures of the newly born Christianity and that people referred to them the same way they referred to the Old Testament. At that time, the foremost authority was the oral tradition as a vehicle for Jesus's words and the teachings of the apostles. The first writings to circulate were Paul's letters and they occupied a prevalent position long before the Gospels. They were, after all, written several decades earlier.
It has already been shown, that contrary to what certain commentators are still writing today, before 140 A.D. there was no witness to the knowledge that a collection of Gospel writings existed. It was not until circa 170 A.D. that the four Gospels acquired the status of canonic literature.
In the early days of Christianity, many writings on Jesus were in circulation. They were not subsequently retained as being worthy of authenticity and the Church ordered them to be hidden, hence their name 'Apocrypha'. Some of the texts of these works have been well preserved because they "benefitted from the fact that they were generally valued", to quote the Ecumenical Translation. The same was true for the Letter of Barnabas, but unfortunately others were "more brutally thrust aside" and only fragments of them remain. They were considered to be the messengers of error and were removed from the sight of the faithful. Works such as the Gospels of the Nazarenes, the Gospels of the Hebrews and the Gospels of the Egyptians, known through quotations taken from the Fathers of the Church, were nevertheless fairly closely related to the canonic Gospels. The same holds good for Thomas's Gospel and Barnabas's Gospel.
Some of these apocryphal
writings contain imaginary details, the product of popular
The abundance of literature concerning Jesus led the Church to make certain excisions while the latter was in the process of becoming organized. Perhaps a hundred Gospels were suppressed. Only four were retained and put on the official list of neo-Testament writings making up what is called the 'Canon'.
In the middle of the Second century A.D., Marcion of Sinope put heavy pressure on the ecclesiastic authorities to take a stand on this. He was an ardent enemy of the Jews and at that time rejected the whole of the Old Testament and everything in writings produced after Jesus that seemed to him too close to the Old Testament or to come from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Marcion only acknowledged the value of Luke's Gospel because, he believed Luke to be the spokesman of Paul and his writings.
The Church declared Marcion a heretic and put into its canon all the Letters of Paul, but included the other Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They also added several other works such as the Acts of the Apostles. The official list nevertheless varies with time during the first centuries of Christianity. For a while, works that were later considered not to be valid (i.e. Apocrypha) figured in it, while other works contained in today's New Testament Canon were excluded from it at this time. These hesitations lasted until the Councils of Hippo Regius in 393 and Carthage in 397. The four Gospels always figured in it however.
One may join Father Boismard in regretting the disappearance of a vast quantity of literature declared apocryphal by the Church although it was of historical interest. The above author indeed gives it a place in his Synopsis of the Four Gospels alongside that of the official Gospels. He notes that these books still existed in libraries near the end of the Fourth century A.D.
This was the century that saw things put into serious order. The oldest manuscripts of the Gospels date from this period. Documents prior to this, i.e. papyri from the Third century A.D. and one possibly dating from the Second, only transmit fragments to us. The two oldest parchment manuscripts are Greek, Fourth century A.D. They are the Codex Vaticanus, preserved in the Vatican Library and whose place of discovery is unknown, and the Codex Sinaiticus, which was discovered on Mount Sinai and is now preserved in the British Museum, London. The second contains two apocryphal works.
According to the Ecumenical
Translation, two hundred and fifty other known parchments exist
throughout the world, the last of these being from the Eleventh
century A.D. "Not all the copies of the New Testament that have
come down to us are identical" however. "On the contrary, it is
possible to distinguish differences of varying degrees of
importance between them, but however important they may be,
there is always a large number of them. Some of these only
concern differences of grammatical detail, vocabulary or word
order. Elsewhere however, differences between manuscripts can be
seen which affect the meaning of whole passages". If one wishes
to see the extent of textual differences, one only has to glance
through the Novum Testamentum Graece. This work
The authenticity of a text,
and of even the most venerable manuscript, is always open to
One might reply that other texts may be used for comparison, but how does one choose between variations that change the meaning? It is a well known fact that a very old scribe's correction can lead to the definitive reproduction of the corrected text. We shall see further on how a single word in a passage from John concerning the Paraclete radically alters its meaning and completely changes its sense when viewed from a theological point of view.
O. Culmann, in his book, The New Testament, writes the following on the subject of variations:
"Sometimes the latter are the result of inadvertant flaws: the copier misses a word out, or conversely writes it twice, or a whole section of a sentence is carelessly omitted because in the manuscript to be copied it appeared between two identical words. Sometimes it is a matter of deliberate corrections, either the copier has taken the liberty of correcting the text according to his own ideas or he has tried to bring it into line with a parallel text in a more or less skilful attempt to reduce the number of discrepancies. As, little by little, the New Testament writings broke away from the rest of early Christian literature, and came to be regarded as Holy Scripture, so the copiers became more and more hesitant about taking the same liberties as their predecessors: they thought they were copying the authentic text, but in fact wrote down the variations. Finally, a copier sometimes wrote annotations in the margin to explain an obscure passage. The following copier, thinking that the sentence he found in the margin had been left out of the passage by his predecessor, thought it necessary to include the margin notes in the text. This process often made the new text even more obscure."
The scribes of some manuscripts sometimes took exceedingly great liberties with the texts. This is the case of one of the most venerable manuscripts after the two referred to above, the Sixth century Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis. The scribe probably noticed the difference between Luke's and Matthew's genealogy of Jesus, so he put Matthew's genealogy into his copy of Luke, but as the second contained fewer names than the first, he padded it out with extra names (without balancing them up).
Is it possible to say that the Latin translations, such as Saint Jerome's Sixth century Vulgate, or older translations (Vetus Itala), or Syriac and Coptic translations are any more faithful than the basic Greek manuscripts? They might have been made from manuscripts older than the ones referred to above and subsequently lost to the present day. We just do not know.
It has been possible to group
the bulk of these versions into families all bearing a certain
number of common traits. According to O. Culmann, one can
All that modern textual criticism can do in this respect is to try and reconstitute "a text which has the most likelihood of coming near to the original. In any case, there can be no hope of going back to the original text itself." (Ecumenical Translation)