Free From All Error: The Holy Scriptures by Rev. William G. Most Part 3

Chapter 19: New Testament Source Criticism


Source criticism studies the sources used by the inspired writers. We saw in chapter 3 the chief instance of that in Old Testament source criticism, namely, the theory of the documents in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. We saw that Pope John Paul II, in a series of audiences, spoke favorably of the documentary theory without meaning to impose it on the Church.


The question of who is the author of an inspired book is not a question of faith but of history. Even if the sacred text itself identifies the author, we know, thanks to the genre principles, that we need not take it at face value. People then, not only used pen names, but often picked the names of famous persons.


(Incidentally, this is a good reason for thinking that Luke and Mark wrote Luke and Mark. They were not famous enough that people would be likely to use their names as pen names.)  We saw too that the Technion study in Israel gives impressive evidence against the documentary theory. Quite a few scholars today are rejecting it. Some do so in the unsupported belief that the traditional data in Genesis is neither reliable nor much older than about 1500 BC (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived well before that date). Others reject the documentary theory because the reasons given in support of it are not at all conclusive.1  But now we are concerned with source criticism of the New Testament. By far the most important part of it is the Synoptic problem, since the most common solution to it, the two-source theory is used as a major basis in form criticism of the New Testament.  What sources were used by Matthew, Mark, and Luke? The problem is fascinating because of extensive  agreements in wording and sequence of events-and also because of extensive disagreements.


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


To put it another way, we would speak of the triple or the double tradition. The triple consists of those parts common to all three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke; the double has those found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. The triple tradition is found in 330 verses out of 661 in Mark; in 330 out of 1,068 in Matthew, and in 330 out of 1,150 in Luke. The double tradition appears in 230 verses of Matthew and Luke. Further, each of the three Gospels has verses special to itself (sometimes called simple tradition). Mark has 50 of these; Matthew has over 315; while Luke has over 500 special to himself.


We notice, too, that the three Gospels have the same order of events in many places, but not in all places: Matthew and Luke have the same sequence only when they both agree with Mark.


There are also claims, somewhat exaggerated, of very closely similar wording among the Synoptics. And there are “doublets,” instances in which a Gospel gives the same saying twice, indicating copying from two sources. Clearly, we do have a problem explaining both the similarities and the differences.  A key question concerns the order in which the three Synoptics were written.


Eusebius of Caesarea, the first Church historian, reports (History 6.14.5) that Clement of Alexandria, writing around 200 AD, said that the Gospels with genealogies (Matthew and Luke) were written before the Gospels without genealogies ( Mark and John). However, Eusebius is citing a lost work purported to be by Clement, the Hypotyposeis, a work under suspicion of serious errors so untypical of Clement that one may wonder if the work was really by him. St.  Augustine, writing two centuries later, around 400 AD, in his De consensu Evangelistarum 1.2-3, thought the sequence was Matthew, Mark, Luke.


Augustine added that he thought Mark epitomized Matthew. This second point-not his view on the order of composition-clashes with what Eusebius (History 3.39.15) also tells us Papias wrote, that Mark was the interpreter of Peter’s preaching and, so, would not be summarizing Matthew. Papias, however, says nothing on the order of composition of the three Synoptics. Papias himself was very early. St. Irenaeus (Against Heresies 5.33.4), writing around 200 AD, says that Papias was a companion of St. Polycarp, who had known the Apostle St. John personally. Irenaeus also gives the sequence as Matthew, Mark, Luke. The Muratorian Canon, dating probably from 170-190 A. D., explicitly makes Luke the third Gospel-though the first lines, which would have spoken of Matthew and Mark, are lost.


The testimony of early writers, then, does definitely say that the order is Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It should be noted that these witnesses seem to speak of the original Hebrew text of Matthew, which is lost, rather than of our present Greek text, whose sequence might be different.


Pope Leo XIII, in his Providentissimus Deus, 1893, made a valuable observation. “Unfortunately,” said Leo, “and with damage to religion, there has arisen a method, dignified by the name of higher criticism, in which the origin, integrity, and authority of each book [of Scripture] is judged by only internal reasons. On the contrary it is clear that in questions of history, such as the origin and transmission) of books, the testimonies of history have more weight than other: things, and that these testimonies should be sought out and examined as studiously as possible; but that the internal reasons are in general not of such weight that they should be used except for a confirmatory argument.”


When Leo XIII wrote these words, they would have met with a cold reception. But today, when many prominent scholars are attacking the historical-critical method, and seeing that its almost exclusive reliance on internal evidence has led to inconclusive results today, his words are coming true. We need to keep them in mind, especially in examining the Synoptic problem.  Numerous solutions to the problem have been proposed. For our purpose, we can reduce the choices to a few general types. Proponents of the oral-catechesis theory think that teaching on the words and deeds of Jesus was given in a more or less fixed, stereotyped form, both in Aramaic and in Greek. Matthew would represent the form current in Palestine; Mark, that in Rome; Luke, the form at Antioch or in the Pauline churches. This theory has not met with much favor. It makes the Evangelists mere recorders rather than real authors. One serious weakness of this theory is that it cannot account for the fact that some things-the Our Father and the words of institution of the Eucharist for example-are found in varied forms.


Another theory proposes mutual dependence of the Evangelists. The simplest form of this theory says that one Gospel is the source of the others, or that two are the source of the third. Few hold this simple view today.


A more refined view says that an Aramaic or Hebrew Matthew came first and that various complete or incomplete Greek translations were made from it.

Meanwhile, oral tradition was evolving. Then Mark used one of these translations plus the preaching of Peter at Rome. Luke used Mark and also a Greek version of Matthew.


A variation on this theme is the theory that Luke used Matthew and that Mark used both Matthew and Luke. This was first proposed in 1764 by an Englishman named Owen. It is better known from the work of J. Griesbach, in 1783, which today is strongly defended by William R. Farmer (The Synoptic Problem, Western North Carolina Press, 1976, and Hans-Herbert Stoldt History and Criticism of the Markan Hypothesis, tr. D. L. Niewyk, Mercer University Press, p1980). This theory would explain both the triple and the double tradition. The special agreements of Matthew and Luke would stem from Luke’s use of Matthew. The similarity of order between Matthew and Mark would come from Mark’s following of the outline of Matthew except at times where Mark chose to follow Luke. The chief difficulty is to explain why Mark would have omitted so much material from his sources. There is also an objection concerning the sequence of incidents: the Gospels of Matthew and Luke agree in order only when they both also agree with Mark.


That Mark wrote first is almost universally accepted today as is the dependence of Luke on Mark. Less generally accepted, but still widely held, is the view that Matthew depends on Mark. Some dispute this last point strongly, insisting that Matthew came first.


The third type of solution is the two-source theory. According to it, Mark wrote first, using oral tradition. But at almost the same time there arose a sayings source called Q (for German Quelle, “source”). Many think this Q had only sayings, no narrative matter, and add that this is the Logia, or sayings of Jesus, which Papias spoke of as written by Matthew. Much agreement in wording in the discourse material common to Matthew and Luke is said to support the existence of Q, as does the presence of doublets, sayings given twice in a Gospel. One would have come from Mark, one from Q.


We cannot offer a definitive solution-no one can. But some things can be said. There really are remarkable similarities in wording, but the wording is not identical in many instances. The best way to see this for oneself is to make point-by-point, word-by-word comparisons between parallel passages in the Gospels. To be fair, we might suggest an incident in which the similarities are specially strong. An example of this is the healing of a leper as reported in Matthew 8:2-4, Mark 1:40-45, and Luke 5:12-16. By far the easiest way to study these texts is to get a volume that prints the four Gospels in parallel columns. One of the best is by Kurt Aland, Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum, Stuttgart, 1978. This has the texts in Greek. There is also an English edition, Synopsis of the Four Gospels, Greek-English Edition of Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum, United Bible Societies, 1979.


The case of the so-called doublets is not as clear as some claim. For example, in chapter 9 of his Gospel, Luke reports a trial mission of the twelve; at the start of chapter 10, he reports: “After this the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them on ahead of him....” (emphasis added). Clearly we could have, not a pure duplication, but two different incidents. As a traveling speaker, Jesus would be very apt to say the same thing in more than one place, with some variations. (A convenient list of “doublets” is found in Stoldt, cited above, on pp. 174- 175.) So this argument is not really convincing, yet many consider it a chief proof of the two-source theory.


One of the more telling arguments against that theory is the presence of the so-called minor agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark. In some passages in which all three Synoptics report the same incident, there are significant agreements, yet Matthew and Luke agree in differing from Mark in small points. For example, in Matthew 21:1-9 and Luke 19:28-37, there are seventeen points in which these two agree in disagreeing with Mark 11:1-10.2  The point is, how can Matthew and Luke unite against Mark on these details if they both followed Mark, as the two-source theory claims?


In addition to the problem of the minor agreements just mentioned. there is impressive evidence against Marcan priority.


My article “Did St. Luke Imitate the Septuagint?” (Journal for the Study of the New Testament, vol. 15,1982, pp. 3041) presents numerous cases in which Luke employs a very odd Semitic structure that in no case at all is found in the parallel passages in Mark (see our chapter 12). So, if Luke copied Mark, why would he have added Semitisms that Mark, a native Semite, did not use?

Similarly, as H. F. D. Sparks says. Luke’s Gospel is notable for a “continual rephrasing of St. Mark: in order to add Semitisms.”3 An example is found in the parable of the wicked husbandmen. In Mark’s version (12:1-12), we find that after the first failure, the master “sent another slave.” Still later, “he sent another.”


Luke’s version (20:9-19) says, “And he added to send another servant.... And he added to send a third” (emphasis added). This is a pure Hebrew idiom, ysf. On the other hand, in a few places Mark has Hebraisms that Luke does not copy (Mark 6:39 and 8:12), even though everyone concedes that Luke is more inclined to Semitisms than Mark (see our discussion of this in chapter 12).


As M. Zerwick shows,4 Luke often uses an Aramaic pattern of a form of the verb to be plus a participle instead of an imperfect indicative. Luke has fifty percent of all such cases in the entire New Testament-thirty examples in his Gospel and twenty-four in Acts of the Apostles. 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.


In regard to adding or omitting details, a study by Leslie R. Keylock5 shows that Luke is more detailed than Mark forty-seven times, less so thirty-seven times; while Matthew is more precise than Mark fifty-eight times, less so fifty-four times.

In all, there is quite a bit of impressive evidence against Marcan priority.


What does the Church say of the Synoptic problem? The Pontifical Biblical Commission, on June 26, 1912, after insisting on the Matthew-Mark-Luke sequence and the early dates for each, said that scholars are free to appeal to theories of oral or written tradition, or to the dependence of one Gospel on another, yet those scholars should “not easily embrace” the two-source theory.

This judgment by the Commission led to a revision of the theory by many Catholic scholars, yet, substantially, it is still defended by very many. Interestingly, the 1964 instruction of the same Commission, “On the Historical Truth of the Gospel,” did not mention the theory. Nor did Vatican II comment. The Commission’s instruction will be examined in detail in the following chapters.


Our conclusion? We have a problem that is likely to remain unsolved until new evidence is developed. Yet it has been worthwhile to examine it for anyone who wants to know what is going on in Scripture studies today, since it is basic to form and redaction criticism, and so since so many scholars dogmatically persist in the erroneous judgment that Mark wrote first.




1 K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1966), pp. 112-134. On the claims that the traditions are not reliable, or early, see K. A. Kitchen, The Bible In Its World (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1977).

2 A table of these is found in Bernard Orchard, Matthew, Luke and Mark (Manchester: Koinonia Press, 1976), pp. 86-87. A detailed analysis of the case is found in the work cited by Farmer, chapter 4. Lists can be found in the work by Stoldt, pp. 276-280 and 274-275.

3 “The Semitisms of St. Luke’s Gospel,” Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 44 (1943), p. 130.

4 Graecitas Biblica, ed. 4 (Romae: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1960), par. 361.

5 “Bultmann’s Law of Increasing Distinctness,” Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation, ed. G. F. Hawthorne (Grand Rapids, Ml, 1975), pp. 196-210. Cf. also The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition, ed. E. P.  Sanders (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1969).

Chapter 20: Prejudices of Form and Redaction Critics


Many today are overawed at the technical and recondite nature of the new methods of Scripture study. No one trained before these methods were developed can know anything about Scripture, they suppose. Form and redaction criticism are the most awe-inspiring part of this picture. But really, there is nothing too difficult to understand here. To make this clear, we will begin by giving a brief presentation of form and redaction criticism, treating both together, since the 1964 Instruction of the Biblical Commission does that, and since, by nature, one follows the other.


There were three stages in the development of our Gospels: (1) Jesus said and did certain things; (2) the Apostles and others in the first generation preached Jesus’ words and deeds; and (3) individuals within the Church, moved by the Holy Spirit, wrote down part of this basic preaching. Incidentally, it should now

be easy to see how we could say at the close of chapter 15 that the Church has something more basic than Scripture. The Gospels are simply part of her own basic teaching, set down under inspiration. In this sense, too, one can speak of only one source of revelation.


To find out at which of these three stages a given item in the Gospels took its present form, and to learn something about it, our first task is to classify each part according to its literary form. For almost any passage in the Gospels, the critics think, could be made up of several of these units, especially since people in stage 2 were apt to report at one time just one unit; one saying of Jesus, or one thing Jesus did. Some of these forms are apt to contain more fact than others, just as various genres assert different things.


In this connection, we should try to determine the life-setting, what the Germans call the Sitz-im-Leben, of a unit. Different life situations are apt to call for the use of different forms, and vice versa. 


Next-and now comes an unfortunate development-we try to see which things can be trusted, for very many critics have thought that the Christian community was “creative,” that is, apt to just fake things.  To do this, certain criteria must be used. Chiefly there are four of them: (1) DOUBLE DISSIMILARITY OR IRREDUCIBILITY: if an idea is dissimilar to the emphases of both ancient Judaism and early Christianity, we may think it comes from Jesus Himself; (2) MULTIPLE ATTESTATION: if we find the same idea in different literary forms. it is more likely to be genuine; (3) COHERENCE: an item is apt to be authentic if it is consistent with material that we already know is authentic by other criteria; (4) LINGUISTIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL TESTS: if the material does not fit with the languages spoken or the environment of the ministry of Jesus, we reject it. That it does fit, however, is not enough to prove that it is authentic.


Many critics, notably Rudolf Bultmann, the father of New Testament form criticism, think there is little we can be sure of about Jesus. He believes that there is a gap between the Jesus of history (what He really was) and the Christ of faith (what the Church preaches about Him). Bultmann wanted to get around the gap by making the Gospels mean the same as the bizarre existentialism of Heidegger. (Fully developed liberation theology uses Marxism in the same way.) 


The study of the first two phases (the words and acts of .Jesus, plus the preaching of the early Church) is called form criticism; the study of the work of the Evangelists in handling this material is called redaction criticism.


The only thing hard to understand about this type of criticism is the remarkable dullness of some of the prejudices the critics bring to the task. For in the above outline, certain assumptions are apparent.


The notion of “the creative community,” for example. To examine this line of criticism in more detail, we will follow the Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels, from the Pontifical Biblical Commission of April 21, 1964. The Latin text, plus an English translation, can be found in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 26 (July 1964), on pp. 299-304 for the Latin, and pp. 305-312 for the English. (We will, however, make our own translation here.)


On the very first page, the instruction calls for scholars to work hard because “the truth of the actions and words contained in the Gospels is being challenged.” The instruction calls on the exegete “to work hard to open up the true sense of the Scriptures, relying not only on his own ability but especially trusting firmly in the help of God and the light of the Church.” To this end, the instruction insists on five points.


First, the exegete should make use of the work of previous scholars, especially the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church. (Many scholars glide lightly over this point.) He should “diligently employ the new helps to exegesis, especially those which the historical method, taken broadly, provides. This method diligently seeks out the sources and their nature and force, and gathers the helps given by textual criticism, literary criticism, and a knowledge of languages. The exegete will observe the admonition of Pius XII...’to prudently ... seek out how the form of expression or the literary genre employed by the sacred writer helps towards true and genuine understanding’.... Finally the exegete will use all means by which he may see more deeply the nature of the testimony of the Gospels”  After these introductory things, the instruction adds the following: “Where the situation calls for it, the exegete is permitted to investigate what sound elements there are in the ‘method of the history of forms,’ which he can use for a fuller understanding of the Gospels.”  Evidently there is good to be had from form and redaction criticism. Note, however, that the instruction merely says that its use is “permitted.” It does not say that it must be done. Further, it warns: “But let him yet be circumspect, for there are often joined to this method unacceptable philosophical and theological principles which not rarely vitiate the method itself and its conclusions on literary matters.”


We often hear this instruction cited as an unqualified go-ahead for scholars to use these methods. Yes, there is a green light, but there are many warnings as well. To ignore them leads to great distortion. Here are the unacceptable principles: “Certain followers of this method. Led astray by the prejudices of rationalism, [1] reject the existence of a supernatural order and the intervention of a personal God in the world as taught by revelation properly so called and [2] the possibility and actual existence of miracles and prophecies. [3] Others start with a false notion of faith, as if faith does not care about historical truth or is even incompatible with it. [4] Others deny, as it were in advance, the historical value and character of the documents of revelation. [5] Others, finally, think little of the authority of the Apostles as witnesses of Christ, and of their role and influence on the primitive community, while they extol the creative power of this community.


All these things are not only opposed to Catholic doctrine but also lack a scientific foundation, and are foreign to the right principles of the historical method.” (Numbers have been inserted in the text for convenience in discussion.) 


There is no need to use much space to prove that unbelievers and some Protestants hold such prejudices. A few samples will suffice. R. Bultmann says that today “nobody reckons with direct intervention by transcendent powers” ( Jesus Christ and Mythology, Charles Scribner’s Sons, N.Y., 1958, p. 36). On page 15 of that book, Bultmann writes: “The whole conception of the world which is presupposed in the preaching of Jesus as in the New Testament generally is mythological ... the conception of the intervention of supernatural powers in the course of events; and the conception of miracles.... We call [it]mythological because it is different from the conception of the world which has been formed and developed by science.... Modern science does not believe that the course of nature can be interrupted.” Patrick Henry, in his broad survey New Directions in New Testament Study (Westminster, 1979, pp. 252-253), reports various views: “Much more important is the Bible’s own portrayal of the ‘piety of doubt’ the ‘faithfulness of uncertainty.’ Even Paul said that ‘now we see in a mirror dimly’ ... and that now is the time of pilgrimage.... Paul also insists that we do not have certain knowledge of things to come.... Interpretations of the New Testament which make of revelation either the direct voice of God or the mystery veiled by the language are simply not serviceable for persons on pilgrimage.”


Some Catholics make unfortunate statements on item 1 above, revelation. Thus the noted catechetical specialist Gabriel Moran, with Sr. Maria Harris, in “Revelation and Religious” (National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 1967, p. 6), wrote of revelation as denoting a “present happening.” Moran and Harris say that “it is impossible to come to a present, personal, social revelation by building upon a thing that is handed down from the past.... The only way that God does not speak is in generalities to the general mass.” 


About the possibility and actuality of miracles (item 2), R. Brown says that “’Myth’ means the supernatural ... that is part of the biblical scene but is not encountered in our lives. For example, the Gospels report a virginal conception, a star that guides wise men to Bethlehem, a voice that speaks from the open heavens, angels who intervene in men’s affairs, demons who possess the sick, marvelous healings, stillings of a storm, multiplication of loaves, a glorious transfiguration and bodies raised from the tomb.... One approach ... is to take every bit of it literally with the explanation that in New Testament times God acted in a totally different manner than He acts now because His Son was in the world. This is biblical fundamentalism, an approach that no respectable scholar, Catholic or Protestant, really follows today. Such an attitude makes New Testament times another world, a type of fairyland.... Some modern scholars are radical in that they accept none ... others are more conservative in that they accept some of it literally. For instance, they accept the virginal conception of Jesus and His resurrection ... but they do not believe in demonic possession” (“The Myth of the Gospels Without Myth,” in St. Anthony’s Messenger, May, 1971, pp. 45-46).


Where does Brown belong? He is a bit cagey, but in Virginal Conception and Resurrection (Paulist, 1973) he wrote: “My judgment ... is that the totality of the scientifically controllable evidence leaves an unresolved problem” (p. 66, italics his). In The Birth of the Messiah, he explains, “I mean the type of evidence constituted by tradition from identifiable witnesses of the events involved, when that tradition is traceably preserved and not in conflict with other traditions” (p.  527, n. 26a). In Virginal Conception, Brown says, “It is lucidly clear that Matthew believed in Mary’s bodily virginity before the birth of Jesus” (p. 31, n.  37). So a lucidly clear statement in a Gospel is not enough evidence? (See Birth of the Messiah, p. 526.)


As for conflicting traditions, Brown says, in Virginal Conception, that “if Joseph and Mary knew that their son had no human father hut was begotten of God’s holy spirit, if it had been revealed to them from the start that the child was to be the Messiah, and if they had not kept this secret from Jesus, how can he not [italics Brown’s] have affirmed that he was the Messiah or that he was the unique Son of God?” (p. 46).


But Brown is convinced that Jesus was ignorant of many things. He spends well over half of his book Jesus, God and Man heaping up scriptural arguments tending to show Jesus’ ignorance. For example, on page 56, Brown says that “we cannot assume that Jesus shared our own sophistication ... [on the question of the afterlife]. If Jesus speaks of heaven above the clouds ... how can we be sure that he knew that it was not above the clouds?” In the Virginal Conception, on page 58. Brown notes that “in Mark 8:29-30 Jesus reacts against a confession that he is the Messiah.” Is this an implication that Mary did not tell Him because there was no virginal conception? 


About the Resurrection in the same book, page 132, Brown claims to have found that “the biblical evidence when re-evaluated by current scientific methods continues to favor the idea of a bodily resurrection.” Note that word favor. It suggests something short of certainty. In the article cited from St. Anthony’s Messenger, above, Brown distinguishes his opinion about demons from that of Jesus and Paul. saying that “the New Testament gives us no reason to think that Jesus and Paul were not deadly serious about the demonic world.... I do not believe that demons inhabit desert places or the upper air, as Jesus and Paul thought.... I see no way to get around the difficulty except by saying that Jesus and Paul were wrong on this point. They accepted the beliefs of their times about demons, but those beliefs were superstitious.”1


As we saw, Brown said that the more generous critics admit the virginal conception and the Resurrection but not demonic possession. We just saw Brown’s views on these points. In what category does that place him?


As to prophecies (also in item 2 above), Brown says, in Virginal Conception (p. 15): “Those who are called Old Testament prophets were concerned about their own times and not with the distant future, about which they could speak only in the vaguest way. Therefore, whether they know it or not, when New Testament authors see prophecy fulfilled in Jesus, they are going beyond the vision of the Old Testament authors.” In a note on the same page, Brown adds this: “The classic apologetic argument from prophecy has had to be reinterpreted in the light of modern biblical criticism. It is no longer primarily a question of the exact fulfillment of divinely guided foreknowledge; it is much more a question of the culmination of a divine plan that could only be detected through hindsight.”


About the third item, an unfortunate concept of faith, we can recall the views, discussed in chapter 6, of Thomas Hoffman, who wants faith to lack a rational foundation. This is much the same idea as is found in “the leap” of Kierkegaard and Bultmann. Sadly the ideas of Hoffman are diffused on a popular level in The New Guide in Reading and Studying the Bible, by Wilfrid Harrington, Wilmington, Del., revised 1984, pp. 25-28). This book summarizes and explicitly refers to Hoffman’s article.


As to items 4 and 5, some Catholic authors do have little confidence in the historical value of the Gospels, as we shall see in the next chapters. The Biblical Commission had ample reason for its warnings. We may and should make use of the resources of form and redaction criticism, but we must be alert for the dangers mentioned.



1 Answer to Brown by Most, The Consciousness of Christ (Front Royal, VA:

Christendom College Press, 1980), p. 49.

Chapter 21: Form and Redaction Criticism I


Right after giving the warnings we saw in chapter 20, the Biblical Commission Instruction of 1964 begins to explain the three stages in the development of the Gospels.


The first stage consists of the words and actions of Jesus Himself: “Christ the Lord joined chosen disciples to Himself, who followed Him from the beginning and saw His works and heard His words, and in this way were suited to be witnesses of His life and teaching.”


Thus, the testimony of the Gospels goes back to eye-witnesses who had seen and heard everything from the beginning. Moreover, Jesus Himself, in presenting His teaching, quite naturally did what any good speaker would do. He adapted His presentation to His audience: “The Lord, when He was orally giving His doctrine, followed the ways of reasoning and presentation that were usual in His time; in this way He accommodated Himself to the mentality of His hearers, and saw to it that what He taught would be firmly impressed on their minds, and would be easily retained in memory by the disciples. They correctly understood the miracles in such a way that through them men might believe in Christ and accept in faith the doctrine of salvation.”


Some scholars today, even some Catholics, try to say that Jesus never intended His miracles to prove anything. They were “just signs,” these scholars say. But it makes sense to ask what they were signs of. The real answer is that they were evidence of His mission and power. Hence, over and over again, He called on people whom He healed to have faith. In context, He was calling them to have faith in His power and mission.


In the second stage of the formation of the Gospels, according to the Biblical Commission Instruction of 1964, “the Apostles proclaimed chiefly the death and resurrection of the Lord, and faithfully presented His life and words, taking into account in their manner of preaching the circumstances of their hearers.”

This is what Jesus Himself had done, for He too adjusted His presentation to His audience. So we can begin to see that while the Apostles might use different words than our Lord did in preaching His message, they did it without changing the sense, for “they faithfully presented His life and words.”


We are here far from the imaginings of some critics who think the early community was “creative”-that Jesus’ followers just made up things so that in a debate between two factions in the community, if the people in faction A did not have a saying of Jesus to support their position, they would make one up, and faction B would counter with the same creativity. This is impossible because the Apostles were in control. There were no headless groups, each running its own

way. Acts 5:12-13 tells us that “many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the Apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high honor.” The people knew that the Apostles, as the Instruction said, “followed Him from the beginning and saw His works and heard His words, and in this way were suited to be witnesses to His life and teaching.”


Another argument against the existence of a free-wheeling “creative” community was the simple fact that all knew their eternity depended on getting the facts about Jesus and His teaching. As St. Paul, in I Corinthians 15:17-18, told the faithful: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.”  What the critics call creativity was all the stronger, according to them,  because it had so long a time to operate, for the Gospels were late in being written. Mark, they commonly think, was a little before 70 AD Matthew and Luke they assign to the period 80-90 AD The evidence offered for these late dates consists of indications found within the Gospel. For example. the clarity of Luke on the prophecy of the tall of Jerusalem, these critics says, shows that it was written after the event. But the strong testimony of early writers, external evidence. shows otherwise. And even if the Gospels were as late as 80-90 AD, the first apologist, Quadratus, writing about 123 AD, tells us that in his day people were still alive who had been healed or raised from the dead by Jesus. That need not mean 123 AD, but it surely covers the later period 80-90 AD


As to the changes of wording and adaptation to their audience, the Instruction tells us that the Apostles would benefit in their preaching from the fuller light they enjoyed after Easter and Pentecost: “After Jesus rose from the dead and His divinity was clearly seen, the faith [of the Apostles], far from destroying the memory of the things that had happened, instead strengthened it, because their faith rested on the things which Jesus had done and taught.”


If we wonder how their faith could have destroyed the memory of what Jesus said and did, the answer is that the Instruction has in mind those who think the Apostles first idealized Jesus, then divinized Him, and so lost sight of what He really had said and done.


The Instruction does not say that His divinity was more clearly seen after the Resurrection. It merely says when it was “clearly seen.” So the Instruction does not tell us whether or not the Apostles understood His divinity at all before the Resurrection. What of the fact that Jesus, in reply to Peter’s confession that He was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16-17), said: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven”? Does the fact that Jesus said Peter had had a revelation have to mean that the revelation said Jesus was divine? Not necessarily. It could have meant Peter received a correct understanding of Messiahship, in contrast to the false notions then current. Or it could have been some dim notion of the divinity of Jesus, which would become clearer later on.

Either possibility would fit with the words of the Instruction. (The words “Son of God” could be applied at that time to any devout Jew. See Hosea 11:1.)  It could be objected that if Peter had known of Jesus’ divinity, he could not have denied Him later. But Peter might have learned by means of an interior locution. Such revelations are clear when first given but can later fade, as we learn from a Doctor of the Church who had experienced them, St. Teresa of Avila (Interior Castle, 6.3).


Next the Instruction follows up on the question of whether faith could destroy or distort the memory of the Person of Jesus and what He said. “The worship which the disciples thereafter extended to Jesus as Lord and Son of God did not change Him into a ‘mythical person,’ nor was His doctrine deformed.” As was noted briefly above, it was Rudolf Bultmann and his school who held that there is a gap between the Jesus of history (what He really was) and the Christ of faith (what the Apostles later preached). This gap happened, they claim, precisely because of the idealization that took place, plus the creativity of the community.


How to answer these critics? The claim rests on subjectivity, not on hard, firm evidence. It is the recognition of this subjectivity that is today leading many prominent critics to abandon form criticism altogether. It should be noted, too, that there is a way of bridging the alleged gap or, better, of simply bypassing it: the use of the method sketched in chapter 2. There are six very simple facts about Jesus in the Gospels, things so simple that entanglement with culture and subjective dispositions could not have affected them, facts whose accurate presentation is assured by the concern of the preachers for their own eternity.


Finding these six facts proves that we have on hand a group, a Church, commissioned to teach by a messenger sent from God, and promised God’s protection. Then we not only intellectually may, but intellectually must, believe that group, the Church, which can tell us in a guaranteed way about the doctrine of Jesus.  The Instruction makes no mention of the four criteria, which were summarized in chapter 20, to see if something came from Jesus. They are not needed once we have gone through the six facts, for the Church assures us that on things beyond the six, the Scriptures do give us at least the substance of what Jesus said. These facts would not, of course, prevent the Apostles from using different words for the benefit of their hearers, adapting themselves to the current audience, as Jesus Himself had done. The change of wording would still preserve the sense faithfully.


The Instruction now returns to the fact that the teaching of the Apostles would have benefited from their clearer understanding after Easter and Pentecost.

“However,” the Instruction says, “we should not deny that the Apostles handed down to their hearers the things really said and done by the Lord in the light of that fuller understanding which they enjoyed after being taught by the glorious events of Christ and by the light of the Spirit of Truth. Thus it happened that just as Jesus Himself after His resurrection ‘interpreted to them [citing Luke 24:27 which tells how Jesus explained the Scriptures to the disciples on the way to Emmaus] both the words of the Old Testament and His own words, so too they [the Apostles] interpreted His words and deeds as the needs of their hearers called for.”


Over and over again the Gospels, with admirable honesty and candor, portray the Apostles as dull and slow to understand during the public life of Jesus. So the Apostles, in using that greater light, would not and did not paint themselves as having understood at a time when they still did not understand. No, but the Apostles would bring out their better grasp of the Old Testament prophecies and of the richness in the words of Jesus Himself.


The Church today still continues to penetrate ever deeper into the message of Jesus, as is seen from the fact that new doctrinal decisions, even definitions, have come down to us over the course of the centuries, and still come to us today.  Those new teachings are not new revelations but deeper penetrations into the deposit of faith once given (see Vatican II, On Divine Revelation, par. 4).


Next the Instruction speaks further on this matter of adapted presentation:

“Devoting themselves to the ministry of the word [see Acts 6.4], they preached, using various forms of speaking that would fit with their purpose and the mentality of the hearers; for they were under obligation [to bring the truth of salvation] ‘to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish’ [see Romans 1:14]. These manners of speaking in which the heralds announced Christ should be distinguished and appraised: catecheses, narratives, testimonies, hymns, doxologies, prayers and other literary forms commonly used in Sacred Scripture by men of that time.”


One of the first steps in form criticism (see chapter 20) is to identify these forms1 so as to see what the Apostles and Evangelists meant to assert. For it is only when we know the rules of the genre being employed that we will rightly judge what is asserted and what is not. However,  everything that is asserted was and is true, as Vatican II tells us: “Since all that the inspired authors or sacred writers assert should be regarded as asserted by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to be confided to Sacred Scripture” (On Divine Revelation, par. 11).


This brings us to what the Instruction has to say about stage 3, the work of the inspired authors (which is really redaction criticism). “The sacred authors entrusted this primitive instruction, first given orally, then in writing-for it soon happened that many attempted to put in order a narration of the things [see Luke 1:1] that pertained to the Lord Jesus-they entrusted it to the four Gospels for the benefit of the churches, according to the method and special purpose that each had in mind. By selecting some things from the many things handed down, by making a synthesis of certain things, by every resource they strove, keeping in mind the state of the churches, that their readers might have assurance about the words in which they had been instructed [see Luke 1:4]. For the sacred writers, out of the things handed down to them, selected chiefly those things which were suited to the various circumstances of the faithful and to the goal they had chosen.”


Notice that the Evangelists used both oral and written sources. (On St. Luke’s meticulous use of sources, see chapter 12.) The Gospels are really part of the original preaching set down under inspiration. The Instruction stresses that only part of the original tradition was set down in writing, for the Evangelists selected some things but did not take all. Further they synthesized some things. St. Matthew, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount, seems to have put together things said by Jesus on several occasions. This selection was guided, the Instruction notes, by two things: the special goals each Evangelist set for himself, and the particular needs of local churches for which the Evangelists wrote. For example, St. Matthew is specially intent on bringing out the fulfillment of prophecies in Jesus and in speaking of the Church. St. Luke stresses the universality, the mission to the Gentiles.


Yet not always can we determine just what the special goals were. Thus Raymond Brown, in Antioch and Rome (Brown and Meier, Paulist, 1983), admits that “one does not know whether Mark was written to confirm a community in its outlook or to correct that community and help it change its mind.... These observations are culled from modern scholarship and reflect the enormous range of disagreement that characterizes contemporary discussion of Mark” (pp. 199-200). Brown adds a note to this sentence: “See the almost despairing note struck by C. F. Evans in The Cambridge History of the Bible (3 vols., Cambridge University. 1960-63) 1.270-71.” Brown adds. in the body of the text: “Furthermore. they are affected by our inability to distinguish with much surety between Mark’s redaction or editing and the tradition that came down to him....”


Quite an admission! Brown, agreeing with most form critics that Mark wrote rote first. confesses that he cannot be sure what is a redaction (editing. change) by Mark and what came down to Mark in tradition. Hence. the “almost despairing note,”-a recognition again of the heavy subjectivity and insecurity involved in form criticism.


Notice. finally. the stress the Instruction places on the reliability of the Evangelists.


Not only are they dependent on the tradition of those who had been eyewitnesses to Jesus from the beginning, but they took great care and “by every resource they strove ... that their readers might have assurance about the words in which they had been instructed.” This is a deliberate echo, as the footnote tells us, of Luke 1:4. in which Luke says that he made a most careful investigation to assure Theophilus of the truth.



1 We called these mini-genres—in contrast to the larger kinds of genres which we surveyed in the early chapters of this book. These larger kinds had more extensive consequences as to how we should understand things; these mini-genres have lesser consequences. Yet in both cases, we should study them.

Chapter 22: Form and Redaction Criticism II


The Instruction has told us that the Evangelists may change the wording of the reports about Jesus while faithfully keeping the sense. Now it adds that the various incidents in the life of Jesus were not always reported in the same sequence as that in which they occurred, and perhaps an item might be affected by being placed in a different context.


“Since the meaning of a statement depends also on the sequence,” the Instruction says, “the Evangelists in handing on the words and deeds of the Savior explained them, one writer in one context, another in another, for the benefit of the readers.


So the exegete should search out what the Evangelist meant in putting a word or deed in this way in a certain context. For 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.”


If we compare the various Gospels, it is apparent that they do not always report events in the same sequence. There is apt to be some bunching, such as is commonly thought to have occurred in St. Matthew’s report of the Sermon on the Mount. And there are other kinds of variations of sequence too. The Instruction tells us that mere variation in sequence in itself does not affect the truth. The reason is the writer’s concern, which the Instruction has insisted on, to report accurately the information that came from those who themselves had been witnesses.


It is even possible to say that a change in sequence may result in putting a saying of Jesus in a different context. And context can affect sense. But’ the sense that the Evangelist intended to express in this way is what he asserted, and that, as we saw in our discussion of Vatican II in chapter 21, is also asserted by the Holy Spirit. So we should seek out what that sense is.  Is it often that there is a real change of sense resulting from a change of context? Not really, but an interesting example is found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew 10:27 says, “What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops.” Luke 12:2-3, however, has this: “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.”  The context shows that the saying in Matthew means that the Apostles will later preach in public what Jesus told them in private. That is of course true. In Luke, however, the saying refers to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. It will come to light. And that, too, is true. Each Evangelist made use of a saying to teach a different truth. But both items were true. (We happen to know, from a Targum or Qoheleth 12:13, that the saying was a proverb.) But, and this is important, if we check the six basic facts used in chapter 2 to reestablish the teaching authority of the Church, not one of them is by nature such that it could vary in sense if placed in a different context. Hence the basic doctrine is fully safeguarded, and the shifts in sense of the type we have seen all yield truths.


St. Paul not infrequently uses Old Testament texts in a way different from their use in the original context. For example, in Romans 1 :17, Paul quotes the prophet Habakkuk (2:4), “The righteous shall live by faith,” to bring out his great theme of justification by faith. Yet Habakkuk was referring to something else. He meant that Judah’s deliverance would be accomplished through fidelity to God, in contrast to the Chaldean invaders, who depended on their own might. Yet, this change by Paul not only did not falsify the doctrine of Christ, rather it taught it all the more clearly as a result of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, under which Paul wrote.


R. Brown (Critical Meaning of the Bible, p. 60) cites the last sentence of the Instruction that we quoted above to try to prove that “it is a sign of obedience” to say the Gospels are not factual history, “for the official teaching of the Catholic Church requires Catholics to hold that the Gospels are not literal accounts of the ministry of Jesus.” This statement by Brown is quite misleading; for it is true in one way, not in another. It is true in that Evangelists may change the sequence and even the context at times, but is not true that they do not give us the facts about Jesus and His doctrine. They do, even when they make the kinds of changes we have just explained.


We saw in chapter 7 that Brown insists that Vatican II allows us to see even religious errors in Scripture. “Limited too,” says Brown, “is the ability of Church authorities to determine the literal sense of a passage in Scripture” (p. 39). Brown also says that “it is crucial that we be aware that the Church interpretation of a passage and the literal sense of that passage may be quite different” (p. 35). Such words make a contrast to what the Instruction really said, a bit below the passage cited above about investigations of the type we saw earlier in this chapter, as to what the Evangelists meant by changes in sequence or context: “Since from the results of new investigations it is clear that the doctrine and life of Jesus were not merely recounted for the sole purpose of being remembered but were ‘preached’ so as to provide for the Church the foundation of faith and morals, the interpreter, in unwearyingly studying the testimony of the Evangelists, will be able to bring out more profoundly the permanent theological value of the Gospels, and to show in full light how greatly necessary and important is the Church’s interpretation [of the Gospels].”


The very fact that we have seen the possibilities of variations in sense that we have just described does make it all the more necessary to have a providentially protected Church that is able to give us a divinely guaranteed interpretation of the Scriptures. Yet it must be insisted that the testimony of the Gospels on the six points studied in chapter 2, which establish the teaching commission of the Church, can be had even without the interpretation of the Church. The very simple nature of the six points makes that help unnecessary and avoids the vicious circle that would result if we did depend on the Church for the six points. In the very next paragraph. the Instruction underscores again this need of the Church. It says that the exegete “must always be read! to obey the magisterium of the Church, and must not forget that the Apostles. filled with the Holy Spirit, preached the good news and that the Gospels were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. who kept their authors from all error.”


R. Brown is very fond, too, of asserting that all the words of Scripture are “time-conditioned.” In Crisis Facing the Church (Paulist, 1975, p. 116), we read: “The battle of biblical criticism has been to get Christians and the Church to recognize that the books of the Bible contain the words of God phrased in the words of men and that therefore to discover God’s revelation one must take into account the historical situation, the philosophical worldview, and the theological limitations of the men who wrote them.”


There is no problem about this, if one goes no further. Of course the Holy Spirit uses human beings as His instruments, and in such a we! that they retain their own personal characteristics and style yet write what the Spirit wills, and without error. The problem is that Brown and many others with him want to go much further.


In Critical Meaning of the Bible, Brown insists that there are contradictions in Scripture (p. 9), and all sorts of errors, even religious errors. As we saw in chapter 20, Brown even charges Jesus not only with ignorance but with superstition. And in Critical Meaning of the Bible Brown writes that, “in the words of Jesus it is dubious that one encounters an unconditional timeless word spoken by God. The Son of God who speaks in the first three Gospels is a Jew of the first third of the first century, who thinks in the images of his time, speaks in the idiom of his time, and shares much of the world view of his time” (p. 12).


In Crisis Facing the Church (pp. 116-118) Brown quotes extensively from Mysterium Ecclesiae, a declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Church (June 24, 1973): “The meaning of the pronouncements of faith depends partly on the expressive power of the language used at a certain point in time, and in particular circumstances.”  Of course this is true. It merely means that the resources of the language at a given period may be inadequate for perfect expression of divine truth. Hence the document adds: “Moreover, it sometimes happens that some dogmatic truth is first expressed incompletely (but not falsely). and at a later date, when considered in a broader context of faith or human knowledge, it receives a fuller and more perfect expression.”1 


A still further qualification is made by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Church: “Finally, even though the truths which the Church intends to teach through her dogmatic formulas are distinct from the changeable conceptions of a given epoch ... it can sometimes happen that these truths may be enunciated ... in terms that bear the traces of such conceptions.” 


An obvious example is the use of the word transubstantiation by the Council of Trent to describe the change of the entire substance of the bread and wine into the substance of the Body and Blood of Jesus. Many of those at the Council doubtless believed the theory of Aristotle about substance and accidents, and that fact influenced the language. However, this does not mean that the Church is committed to the theory of Aristotle. No, the word substance can be used in a nontechnical, everyday sense, and the meaning will be the same. Hence the

Council of Trent, aware of this fact, used careful language: “This change is fittingly and properly called transubstantiation by the Catholic Church.”


So from this instance occurring in the Council of Trent we can gather something very important. Even if we know the thought-world of the Fathers of a Council, the divine protection covers only what they explicitly state in writing, not what we just happen to know was in their minds. Aristotelianism was in their minds, but they did not teach Aristotelianism, even though they borrowed words from it, words which yet could be understood outside of Aristotelianism, as part of the everyday language of that time.


We happen to know that some writers of conciliar texts, during and after the time of St. Augustine, had in mind his unfortunate theory of predestination. Yet Providence prevented them from explicitly teaching it in writing, and it did not become part of our doctrine. We may well surmise, too, that Pope Pius IX  may well have had in mind a thought-world that went beyond what he wrote on religious freedom and indifferentism. But only what he explicitly taught counts as the teaching of the Church.


Again, the framers of the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Liberty may have held ideas beyond what they explicitly taught. Those ideas are not part of official teaching. Similarly, if an Old Testament writer, or even a New Testament writer, held erroneous ideas but did not explicitly assert them in Scripture, they are not part of the teaching of Scripture. Revelation was incomplete before Christ. So some writers may have believed error; but only what they explicitly taught counts. Because of this historical situation, the document of Mysterium Ecclesiae adds:


“The dogmatic formulas of the Church’s Magisterium were from the very beginning suitable for communicating revealed truth and ... they remain forever suitable ... to those who interpret them correctly.... For this reason theologians seek to define exactly the intention of teaching proper to the various formulas.”

Words change in meaning over time. Thus the word sacramentum meant something different in the first centuries from what it meant in texts of the Council of Trent. So we should study the usage of words at the time an official statement was made. In so doing, we will observe the reservations expressed above. Even if we know that the thought-world of the writers went further than what they explicitly taught in writing, we must not let this knowledge lead us to think they have taught what they did not teach, what they only kept in their minds.  One could even say there is a sort of divine brinkmanship. For God needs to honor two commitments simultaneously. On the one hand, He has given free will; on the other hand, He has promised to protect the teaching of the Church. In doing both at the same time, it is sometimes necessary to draw a very tight line, conceding much to each claim, yet allowing no contradiction.  If, then, we wish to speak of time-conditioning in the words of Scripture without going beyond the lines just drawn, we do positively well. But if we go beyond those boundaries, we soon reach the realm of error. The 1964 Instruction adds a few valuable admonitions at the end. “Those who instruct the Christian people by sacred preaching,” the Instruction says, “need the greatest prudence.... They must altogether abstain from futile novelties and things insufficiently proved. As to new opinions that are already solidly proved, they may present them cautiously if necessary, taking into account the characteristics of their hearers. When they narrate biblical events, they must not add fictitious things that are out of conformity with the truth.


“This virtue of prudence must especially be cultivated by those who write for the faithful at the popular level.... They must consider it a sacred duty never to depart in the least from the common doctrine and tradition of the Church. Yes, they may turn to their own use the real advances in biblical knowledge ... but must avoid altogether the rash fancies of innovators. They are strictly charged not to give in to a dangerous itch for novelty, recklessly disseminating attempts at the solution of difficulties without prudent sifting and serious discrimination-disturbing the faith of many.”2 Vatican II’s Constitution on Divine Revelation repeats part of the 1964 Instruction but in no way goes beyond it or beyond previous official teachings about Scripture.



1 The reason is that divine truths are often simply beyond the power of human language to express fully. So the Church may make a pronouncement that is not false but yet is not perfect, does not exhaust the possibilities of the divine revelation. That will leave room for an improved expression later on.  However, this will not mean there is anything positively wrong with the early statement.

2 What would the Instruction think of one who not only proposes rash things but ridicules all attempts to defend the truth of a certain passage of Sacred Scripture as “an unmitigated disaster?” (cf. chapter 7).

Chapter 23: Examples of Form and Redaction Criticism


Examples of form and redaction criticism demonstrate how some of the leading critics actually have worked in this method. They will also show the degree of subjectivity that is characteristic of such critics. Some of them, recognizing the lack of objectivity in their work, have abandoned the entire historical-critical method, of which form and redaction criticism are important parts.


We already saw (chapter 21) how R. Brown and C. F. Evans frankly admit their inability to know why Mark was written or to distinguish between Mark’s redactions and the traditions that came down to him. Here are some striking confessions by Rudolf Bultmann, the father of New Testament form criticism.

Talking about how to resolve a controverted question of biblical interpretation, he said, “naturally enough, our judgment will not be made in terms of objective criteria, but will depend on taste and discrimination” (HST, p. 47). I n fact: “...  conclusive knowledge is impossible in any science or philosophy” (KM, p. 195).


Even faith should have no real foundation, according to Bultmann, since “security can be found only by abandoning all security” (KM, p. 210). Referring to the search for objective proofs, Bultmann says, “The old quest for visible security... is sin” (KM, p. 19). And: “The word of preaching confronts us as the word of God.


It is not for us to question its credentials. It is we who are questioned” (KM, p. 41).


In Luke 3:10-14, various kinds of people ask St. John the Baptist what they should do. Bultmann, in spite of his admissions, feels certain here. “This is a catechism-like section,” he says, “naively put into the Baptist’s mouth, as though soldiers had gone on a pilgrimage to John. There is one thing that makes it improbable that we are here dealing with a product of the primitive Christian Church-that the profession of a soldier is taken for granted. Neither does this passage appear to be Jewish. It is perhaps a relatively late Hellenistic product, developed (by Luke himself) out of the saying from the tradition in v. I I “ (MST, p. 145).


Bultmann is sure that the primitive Church could not approve of soldiers. He thinks it must have been totally pacifistic, even though Jesus Himself, when the centurion came to ask Him to cure his servant, praised the centurion: “Not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Matthew 8:10). Nor did Jesus tell him to give up the army. Neither did the angel, in Acts 10:1-9, who was sent to Cornelius the centurion, tell him to give up soldiering.  Bultmann here is using the criterion, discussed in chapter 20, of dual irreducibility (something is from Jesus, or at least level one if it fits neither Jewish ideas nor those of the primitive Church). Yet he does not accept the result of the criterion but calls the verse a “relatively late Hellenistic product developed by Luke himself.” Incidentally, especially because of the studies of Martin Hengel, most scholars now think we cannot call something late because it seems Hellenistic, since we now think that “even in Jewish Palestine, in the New Testament period, Hellenistic civilization had a long and eventful history behind it (Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in Their Encounter in Palestine During the Early Hellenistic Period, SCM Press, 1 974).


Another prominent critic, Norman Perrin, has different comments on John the Baptist and thinks the saying in Matthew 1 1:12 about the kingdom of heaven suffering violence from the days of John the Baptist is genuine. The tradition about John the Baptist, he says, shows “a continuous ‘playing down’ of the role of the Baptist” ( Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, Harper & Row, N.Y., 1967, p. 75).


Perrin thinks the primitive Church was in rivalry with the followers of the Baptist and so would never have made up the saying in Matthew 11:12. In regard to the words that the kingdom of God suffers violence. Perrin adds: “What we have here is the reverse of the situation envisaged in the interpretation of the exorcisms: there the kingdom of Satan is being plundered, here, that of God” (p. 77). The real sense seems to be that the Pharisees forcefully try to prevent people from entering the kingdom.


Perrin mentions a saying about exorcisms in Matthew 12:28: ‘But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” On page 64, he comments: “The saying has high claims to authenticity....”


Perrin then quotes Bultmann (MST, p. 162), who thinks the saying “is full of that feeling of eschatological power which must have characterized the activity of Jesus.”  Perrin makes a shocking blunder on page 16 of the same work. He was once inclined, he says, to believe that the Gospels were historical, but form criticism showed him over and over again they were not: “We would claim that the gospel materials themselves have forced us [emphasis added] to change our mind.”


Perrin says that he has been particularly influenced by Mark 9:1 and its parallels. Mark 9: I says: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.” Matthew 16:28 is the same, except that it says they will see “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Luke 9:27, says that they will see “the kingdom of God.”  Perrin believes that Matthew and Mark expect the end soon but that Luke, because he no longer does, rewords things in such a way as to face “the long haul of history.” Behind this claim lies the belief that Jesus was in error, expecting the end soon, and that Paul held a similar error. 


Perrin thinks he is “forced” to see Matthew and Mark clashing with Luke, but he is not at all forced. The passage could refer to the Transfiguration. More likely, Mark means that they will see the kingdom-the Church-coming, being spread by the power of the Holy Spirit, by miracles after Pentecost. Many scholars today accept at least a partial equation of the Church with the kingdom (see JBC 11, David M. Stanley and John McKenzie, pp. 783 and 64; Matthew, Anchor Bible, 1971, Doubleday, W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, pp. Ixxxvi and c).  Note, too, that in the parables of the net (Matthew 13:47-50), of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), and of the weeds in the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30), kingdom must mean the Church. For if it meant reign, there would be wicked persons in it; they refuse to subject themselves to God’s reign.


When Matthew says that they will see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom, he means that Jesus will visit His Church (concept of Hebrew paqad, “to come to help or to punish”-not necessarily visibly). As to Luke, he says that they will see the kingdom, the Church, established.


So Perrin is not at all forced. And again, subjectivity is showing with full power!  This notion that Luke is settling down to the “long haul” basically comes from Hans Conzelmann in his Die Mitte der Zeit, 1954 (English title: The Theology of St. Luke, Faber & Faber, London, 1961), a work that, though often called “epoch-making,” introduced a major error.


We recall (chapter 16) that Fuller now thinks that the historical-critical method is bankrupt. He once felt otherwise. A really-great influence has been exercised by his form-critical analysis of Mark 8:29-33, the scene of the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi (The Foundations of New Testament Christology, R. H. Fuller, Charles Scribner’s Sons, N.Y., 1965, p. 109). Jesus asks the disciples who men say that He is. They report various ideas. He then turns to the Apostles and asks them. Peter replies, “You are the Messiah” (unit 1). Jesus then   commands them to tell no one (unit 2) and goes on to predict His passion, to which Peter objects (unit 3). Finally He turns on Peter saying, “Get behind me Satan” (unit 4).  Units 1 and 4 seem genuine to Fuller, but he attributes units 2 and 3 to the Church. Unit 2 is the “Messianic Secret.” Jesus never said He was Messiah, Fuller writes: The church later, being embarrassed, covered by picturing Him as knowing but calling for silence on His Messiahship.


In his analysis, Fuller leans on the work of Wilhelm Wrede (The Messianic Secret, trans. J. Greig, James Clarke Co., Cambridge & London, 3rd ed., 1971). Wrede tries to prove his point by examples. His strongest case is that in which Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus, then tells the people to tell no one.


Wrede explains that since anyone will be able to see that the girl is alive, there is fakery by the Church. But the reply is easy. Jesus was alone in the house with the parents, Peter, James, and John. Had the crowds found out, they would have seized Him, proclaimed Him King Messiah, according to their false notion of what the Messiah should he. Jesus needed silence only long enough to slip out of the house and be on His way.


In unit 3. Jesus predicts His Passion; but, the critics object, when He died and rose. the Apostles acted as if they had never heard of it. So the Church invented the prophecies after the fact. But it is well known that if one has a mental framework and then hears something that does not fit it. that item of information will not enter his mind at all.


Examples are countless. Dr. Semmelweis, in the nineteenth century. found that by taking antiseptic precautions puerperal fever could be largely prevented. His medical colleagues considered it ridiculous. not knowing there were such things as germs. Poor Semmelweis was sent-by doctors-to an insane asylum for the rest of his life. Teilhard de Chardin dreamed of a glorious period, just before Christ’s return at the end, when most of the world would be united in love. He must have read Scripture-Luke 18:8, Matthew 24:12. Timothy 3:1-7-but it did not penetrate his thinking (Consciousness of Christ).


Having eliminated, as they think they have, units 2 and 3, the critics will then read what they think is the truth without fakery: Jesus asks the Apostles who they say He is. Peter answers that He is the Messiah. Jesus, with the words “Get thee behind me, Satan,” angrily rejects the notion that He is the Messiah. This analysis is one of the chief supports of the notion that Jesus was ignorant of His own identity. What a poor proof!


A less radical but not yet sound, view of the Passion prophecies is found in J. Jeremias’s New Testament Theology (Charles Scribner’s Sons. N.Y., 1971). Jeremias speaks of the three Passion prophecies in the Gospels and says that the third one, Mark 1 0:33ff and parallels, so closely matches the actual event, even in details, “that there can be no doubt that this passion prediction is a summary of the passion formulated after the event” (p. 277).


Jeremias admits a core of truth but thinks that the abundance of details is evidence that some falsification has taken place. Behind his theory lurks a disbelief in the possibility of real prophecy. Jeremias also argues that in the first of these prophecies, Mark 3:31, the use of the Greek dei is striking. He says that the Semitic languages have nothing that exactly corresponds to it. This, he says, indicates that the first prediction took its form in a Hellenistic millieu. (Dei plus accusative and infinitive means “it is necessary that.”)


It is now known that Hellenistic influence had been around long before the time of Jesus, so it cannot be argued for that reason that the form is late. It is true that Hebrew and Aramaic lack a word equivalent to the Greek dei, but those languages do in other ways express the idea that something must happen-in the case of the Passion, by the will of the Father. Examples can be seen in Isaiah 38:10, “I must depart,” and in Jeremiah 4:21, “How long must I see?” A complete concordance, under the word must, will provide other instances of the concept of necessity in the Old Testament.


Already in 1943, L. J. McGinley studied in detail the alleged parallels between the miracles of Jesus and rabbinic or Greek miracles.1 The differences are so great that one should not agree with Dennis C. Duling, who repeats the error of Bultmann without correcting it: “The narratives about Jesus, like the biographical framework of the total story of Jesus itself, were judged [by Bultmann] to have little actual historical value, though historical events might lie hidden in them.


Miracle stories, for example, were so retold that they often sounded like the miracle stories so common in the Greco-Roman world.”2  Not if one makes close comparisons, as McGinley did. 


Fuller also thought that to believe in the virginal conception is to go counter to the Gospel: “But the virginal conception clashes headlong with this earlier Davidic-sonship Christology, for the latter depends on Jesus’ physical descent from David through Joseph.... Both Evangelists [Matthew and Luke] leave the two concepts side by side, thus indicating their concern, not with historical facts, but with Christological affirmation” (p. 195).


Fuller sees “three possible candidates for the creative milieu: (1) Palestinian Aramaic Christianity; (2) Hellenistic Jewish Christianity; (3) Gentile Christianity, from pagan sources. Everything points to (2) as the correct solution.... Thus the virginity of Mary is an idea which could only have arisen in the LXX sphere.”


LXX stands for the Septuagint, the old Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. It had parthenos, “virgin,” in Isaiah 7:14, where the He brew had almah. But almah, “young woman” (commonly unmarried) can mean a virgin. So the thought can be found in the Hebrew too. As to Davidic descent, adoption by Joseph is sufficient for that. Fuller, perhaps realizing his evidence is insecure, tries to show, in note 43 on the next page, that Hellenistic Judaism already had the idea of a virgin birth in the case of Isaac and others. But he uses statements from a different genre-typology or allegory-and strains them badly to make them seem to give cases of virgin birth. 


Study of the parables is quite active today. A turning point came in the two volumes of A. Julicher (Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, Tubinger, 1888-1889). Who insisted that any allegorical explanations of a parable in the Gospels could not have come from Jesus Himself. Julicher argued that Jesus used simple comparisons only, not the detailed applications found in allegories, since His main purpose was to illustrate general truths on morality and religion. Julicher did not prove his point. yet many followed him. A major follower of Julicher was C. H. Dodd: The Parables of the Kingdom, Charles Scribner’s Sons. N.Y., 1st ed.  1935; revised ed. 1961. Dodd, however, did not agree that the parables of the kingdom deal with general moral or religious truths. Rather, they convey the message of the kingdom of God. which Jesus inaugurated.


On page 105, Dodd begins to deal with parables of crisis: faithful and unfaithful servants (Matthew 24:45-51 and Luke 12:42-46); the waiting servants (Mark 13:33-37 and Luke 12:35-38); the thief at night (Matthew 24:4344 and Luke 12:39-40); and the ten virgins (Matthew 25: 1-12). Dodd thinks that these parables have been reapplied, that they deal with the Sitz-im-Leben (life situation) of the Church rather than that of Jesus. The Church, according to Dodd, saw itself in the interval between two crises, the Incarnation and the return at the end; while Jesus had in mind a brief period of intense crisis, the coming of God’s kingdom. 


What are we to think of this? Dodd, of course, gives no real proof. Yet we can admit that the Church, in retelling parables given by Jesus, might well make different applications of them. We saw in chapter 22 that St. Paul at times uses Old Testament texts in a sense different from that of the original context. So the Church could, not unreasonably, do the same with parables, fitting in everything with the message of Jesus.


J. Jeremias, in The Parables of Jesus, (translated by S. H. Hooke, Charles Scribner’s Sons, N.Y., 1955) gives us a minor but helpful bit of light on the parables in view of rabbinic usage: “Most of the rabbinical parables,” says Jeremias, “begin with the words: mashal le.... This usage is an abbreviation of ... ‘I will relate a parable to you. With what shall the matter be compared? It is the case with it as with...”’ (p. 78). Therefore, in Matthew 13:45, the kingdom of God is not really like a merchant but like the pearl in the story of a merchant who finds a great pearl, as we can see from the full form of the introduction to parables.  We have now seen some examples of form and redaction criticism. What is to be said about them? We do not wish to simply discard these techniques, as do those who once abused them (see chapter 16). Yet it must be said that, compared to the approach through literary genres, form and redaction criticism are not nearly so fruitful. The genre approach yields more good than harm; form and redaction criticism more often lead to errors. Yet there are many good examples. Let us mention just a few.


Norman Perrin (Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, Harper & Row, N.Y., 1967, pp. 140-141) does discover the correct meaning of faith in the Gospels.

He says that in ancient Judaism, the basic meaning of faith was trust. “But to the Jews, trust must of necessity issue in obedience.” Therefore faith would include absolute trust and complete obedience. Of course, trust presupposes mental belief in the power or mission of Jesus.


Many are puzzled by Mark 13:30: “This generation will not pass away before all these things take place.” Form criticism suggests that perhaps, in the original setting, the passage refers just to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD That is possible, but it is better to say that the Hebrew dor can mean a period (here, the Christian regime) and that there can easily be a multiple-fulfillment pattern here, less well marked than in Matthew 24 but present nonetheless. (On multiple fulfillment, see chapter 5.)


Many form and redaction critics, in their study of Luke’s use of his sources, have noted how carefully he follows them-an indication of accuracy and reliability.  Recall, too, the special study of Luke’s Semitisms, summarized in chapter 12, which also shows the meticulousness of Luke’s work in translating his sources.



1 “Hellenic Analogies and the Typical Healing Narrative,” Theological Studies, Vol. 4 (1943), pp. 385-419, summarized in The Consciousness of Christ, op. cit. pp. 218-219.

2 N. Perrin, Dennis C. Duling, The New Testament: An Introduction, 2nd ed.

(New York: Harcourt Brace, 1982), p. 402.

Chapter 24: Other Forms of Criticism


As we saw in chapter 16, quite a few very prominent scholars are now completely giving up the historical-critical method. Quite improperly; they merely did not learn to live within its limitations. Now they are turning to other methods.


Some attempt a psychoanalytic reading of the New Testament, seeking an analogy between the Gospel narratives, especially the parables and miracle stories, and dreams and visions. Each, they think. is a product of preconscious or unconscious factors. Like an analyst with a patient on the couch, these writers search for little gaps, slips, disagreements that may reveal hidden motivations.


Some see the behavior of the prodigal son in the Gospel as a living-out of the Oedipal conflict. There is, they think, a possibility of psychoanalyzing Jesus as He is pictured by the Evangelists. Others are cultivating a sociological analysis of early Christianity and of the New Testament. No doubt, there are some possibilities in this approach, but it surely cannot replace careful study of the text by means of the historical-critical method. Within this sociological approach, liberation theology is dominant. Bultmann, the pioneer form critic of the New Testament, thought he saw a gap between Jesus as He really was and the Christ the Church preached. We cannot know much for certain of what He really was, Bultmann thinks, so we take Him and His teaching to mean the same as Heidegger’s existentialism: original sin means a loss of authentic being, the resolve to go through with life even though it is dismal in a universe that makes no sense.


In a parallel way the radical liberationists (there are milder forms) use Marx the way Bultmann used Heidegger. This results in a most radical reinterpretation of all Christian teaching. Love becomes a preference for the poor coinciding with an option for class struggle; hope becomes confidence in the future; salvation becomes freedom from economic oppression.


But our chief focus now is on structuralism, also called semiotic analysis. Reactions of Scripture scholars run the full gamut. Some, Joseph Fitzmeyer, for example, think it just a fad.1 Others, for example René Laurentin, call it very promising as a method. Yet Daniel Patte, a leading U.S. practitioner, writes: “A first striking characteristic of a structural exegesis is the absence of the traditional semantic concern: the exegesis no longer aims at what the author meant” ( What is Structural Exegesis?, Fortress, 1976, p. 14). Instead, the exegete tries to uncover the linguistic, narrative, or mythical structures of the text, on the assumption that the author himself was not aware of using complex structures. Further, according to Patte, “the structuralists acknowledge the plurality of ‘structural meanings.’”


There are three types, or levels, of structure, according to the structuralists. All are marked by, affected by, “constraints.” Patte explains that “a text may be compared to a hand-woven blanket.... The ‘design effect’ is the result of the intentional combination of colored threads. Yet the ‘design effect’ is also determined by the limited possibilities [constraints] offered by the loom and the set of colored threads available to the artisan” (p. 21). The first level is made up of the structures of the enunciation, which are limited by the constraints brought about the author, individual, or group, and his/their situation in life. The second level is made up of the cultural structures, which are shaped by the constraints proper to the specific culture in which the author lives. The deepest level is marked by the structures that characterize man as man. It is this deep level that chiefly concerns structuralists.  They believe, too, that the deepest structures are not necessarily apparent but are apt to be expressed in “codes.” To break these codes, as it were, one must pay attention to wholes and show the interrelation of their parts.


Almost all structural study of the Bible goes back to a classic essay by Claude Levi-Straus, “The Structural Study of Myth,” which now forms part of his Structural Anthropology (Basic Books, N.Y., 1963). Levi-Straus is not a biblical scholar but a philosophical anthropologist. He thinks that “the purpose of

myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction” (p.  229). Myths: show. he thinks, very similar patterns of plot and some rather standardized structures. For example, Zuni myths he has studied deal in fundamental oppositions: life-death, nature-culture. heaven-earth, God-man.  These oppositions are real and cannot be overcome. Yet a myth can. as it were, transcend them by breaking them up, in the sense of replacing them with secondary oppositions that can in a way be thought of as equivalent to the fundamental opposition.


The life-death opposition, where there is no middle or intermediary, cannot in itself be overcome. But a myth can use agriculture to replace life, and warfare to replace death. There is a mediating term possible here: hunting. Hunting uses death to provide life-giving food. So life and death no longer seem in absolute opposition.


Structuralists note that myth systems feature binary opposition, the kinds of opposites just mentioned. Levi-Straus thinks that binary opposition is basic in human thinking.


Rather naturally then, Algirdas Julien Greimas proposed using a semiotic square for analysis (see his basic works, Semantique structurale, Larousse, Paris, 1966, and Du Sens, Seuil, Paris, 1970). It is ultimately derived from the logical square of Aristotle.


[Diagram: square with “A” at the upper left corner; “A” at lower left; “B” at upper right; “B” at lower right; corners connected by dotted diagonals.]  Items A and B, connected by diagonals, are contradictories, as are B and A. The horizontal lines A to B and A to B are contraries. The vertical lines, A to A and B to B, are correlatives. Clearly, thus one can sort out the binary relations with which semiotics is so concerned.


We mentioned above that R. Laurentin thinks this sort of analysis very promising. In his Les Evangiles de l’Enfance du Christ (Desclée et Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1982, 2nd edition), he devotes 160 pages to a semiotic analysis of the Infancy Gospel of Luke (chapters 1 and 2). First, he gives a long preliminary (pp. 144-172), in which he classifies at length various statements in the Gospel into categories: grammar, time, several kinds of places, to have, to will, to owe, to know, to see, to be able, to make (with exterior object), to do (without exterior object), to be, etc.


Laurentin next divides the first two chapters of Luke into various narrative programs, that is, sequences of events, and tries to decide what division and grouping is proper (pp. 173-265). Here he admits that structuralists are not in complete agreement. The major groups he settles on are these: annunciation to Zachary, Annunciation to Mary, Visitation, birth and circumcision of the Baptist, Birth of Christ the Lord, Presentation in the Temple, Finding in the Temple. Each of these seven is further subdivided.


In his next step Laurentin makes use of the “actantial model” of Greimas.  Semiotics bristles with technical terms, most of which could be omitted, as Laurentin shows concretely by his study that makes scant use of them. An “actant” is not the same as an actor. It is a semantic unit (unit of meaning) that comes at a more abstract level than the actor in the usual sense of the word. It can be either singular or plural, abstract or concrete. We can see more easily from the diagram of Greimas, in which there are six actants along three axes:













For example, one could identify God as the sender, the Gospel as the object, the receiver as the human race. The opponents are the enemies of Jesus; the helpers are the Apostles, the disciples, and so on. Jesus is the subject who gives the good news.


The use Laurentin makes of this model is as follows: God or Jesus is the sender. he is also the subject. The object is salvation, which is identified with Jesus, who is in that way both subject and object. Laurentin does not identify the opponents.


He asserts that Luke does not like to bring out opposition. Helpers, he says, are not yet prominent in this stage of the Gospel. He notes, too, that with one exception. (God is the only subject of doing or making with an external object.

God brings about activity in humans. He notes, too, that many names of God are given to Christ: Lord, Son of the Most High, Son of God, Savior. The receivers of course, are the People of God.


Noting that Christ fills all important posts, Laurentin sums up in a manner not found elsewhere. Jesus is at the same time subject and object (Savior and salvation), is identified with God the sender and, in a sense, with men, the receivers. He is God with God, man with men.


In the final stage of his analysis, Laurentin makes use of the semiotic squares.2

Laurentin works out in great detail the things or statements or persons that fall under the parts of two squares: law and grace, glory and humility. To illustrate, let us follow through the chief points of the law-grace square. Using the same letter designations as in the diagram of the basic square, the law is A, grace is B. They are contraries. Then A and B are, respectively, non-grace and non-law. Thus law and non-law are contradictories; so are grace and non-grace.


Laurentin notes, incidentally, that the word grace (not used in Mark, used only

three times in John) occurs eight times in Luke and seventeen times in Acts. The word grace is also a favorite of St. Paul, with whom Luke associated so much.


Laurentin then lists numerous instances of the concept of law in Luke 1 and 2, for example, the observance of justice by Zachary and Elizabeth, the two circumcisions (of John and Jesus), the obedience to the law of Augustus calling for an enrollment. Grace appears, for example, in the benevolence of God to Elizabeth, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon Mary, the Spirit being upon Simeon, and in many more instances.


For the pole of non-grace, Laurentin lists, among other things, the lack of faith in Zachary; the proud, rich, and powerful, who are disgraced in the Magnificat; those in darkness mentioned in the Benedictus. The pole of non-law includes the enemies of the People of God. In a sense, too, Laurentin sees non-law present, paradoxically, in Mary, who went beyond what the law required. He mentions also that .Jesus was “disobedient to His parents by the higher attraction of His Father from heaven.” This last item is very regrettable. No less than eleven times in the entire book, Laurentin speaks of Jesus as disobedient a real irreverence, and a charge that is not at all true. In staying in the temple at age 12, He was not disobeying any command of His parents. He was informally doing what they had not expected. Hence their failure to comprehend; that is, they did not understand this change of pattern from Him, who normally followed their every wish.  It seems that the need to fill out the semiotic square is a chief factor leading Laurentin to this unfortunate repeated statement. (Incidentally, one is tempted to wonder if he fully accepts the teaching of the Church that Jesus had the Beatific Vision in His human soul from the moment of conception (see Laurentin, pp. 264, 495).


Laurentin then fills in the three axes (contraries, contradictories, correlatives). He asks whether law and grace are really contraries, and answers that they are in the sense that they differ in having interior and exterior norms, in rule and freedom.


But he thinks that the dramatic opposition St. Paul makes of law and grace is resolved and surpassed, for example, in that Jesus was presented in the temple as under the law but is shown by the law itself as the Holy One to come (Luke 2:23).


Laurentin says that the other contraries, non-law and non-grace, are found in the enemies who hate. He adds that this point is not important.  As to the contradictories, grace and non-grace are shown, for example, in the revolution worked by the grace of God in favor of the poor; in the punishment of Zachary, who resisted grace and was punished; and in the prophecy of Simeon, who says that Christ will occasion both the rise and fall of men. Laurentin sees the contradiction of law and non-law in the opposition between the People of God and the pagans to whom the Messiah brings the light. This opposition will be overcome by grace. As to the correlations: law and non-grace are found in the case of Zachary; grace and non-law appear in the singular paradoxes in which the drive of grace and the movements of the Spirit upset norms and usages. Regrettably, Laurentin mentions again the “disobedience” of Jesus here. 


Laurentin also works out the topographical implications of the square so that Nazareth stands for grace, Jerusalem for law, Bethlehem for non-law, and those in darkness (Luke 1:79) for nongrace.


The final part of the working out of the law-grace square is in the modalization of being: seeming-to-be. This is really a subsquare with being and seeming-to-be as A and B, while A and B are, respectively, not seeming-to-be and not being. Across the top line, from A to B, he writes truth: across the bottom line, falsity. On the vertical lines for correlatives he puts on the left, secret, on the right, lie. He notes that this square coincides partly with the law-grace square. Laurentin fills in, in some detail, the things that apply to all points here, just as he did with the law-grace square.


Laurentin gives a full treatment also to the second square: glory-humility. A and B are theophany and poverty; A and B are non-poverty and non-theophany. 

In the conclusion, Laurentin, after noting that the constant movement in Luke I and 2 is the surpassing of an ordinary and terrestrial program by a divine program, makes three principal points: (1) Zachary and Elizabeth appear at first as models of keeping the law. Yet their modeling is not fully successful: they are freed from sterility, but Zachary becomes mute and Elizabeth remains silent for some time. Next in time comes the gift of the Spirit, who fills the Baptist before his birth, then Elizabeth, then Zachary. The triple gift of the spirit is especially found in Mary, who stands for grace. (2) The birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, the messianic place, is programmed, not by the law of God. but by the law of Augustus. Glory then follows on grace. The glory that shone on the shepherds stands for God, who is often called glory in the Old Testament; Simeon, in calling Jesus the glory of the people Israel, indicates His divinity. (3) The two scenes in the temple stand also for the passage from law to grace. Jesus at the presentation is under the law but is manifested by the law itself (Luke 2:23 calls Him “the Holy One”). By the Spirit, Simeon recognizes in Him the salvation, the light of the nations, the glory of Israel. The final scene transcends the others. Jesus, following law and custom, goes to Jerusalem, frees Himself from His parents in disobedience (!), and announces that He belongs to the Father. Then He goes back to daily submission at Nazareth, where He grows under the sign of grace (Luke 2:52 and 2:40). Thus “grace” completes Luke 1-2. It was there at the start; it is there at the end.


Laurentin adds two final observations: (1) The transcendent being of the Son of God is marked from the point of departure in 1:32-35, and appears in progressive manifestations (Annunciation, Visitation, Christmas, theophany in the temple). In the temple, He expresses His Being and mission as Son of God-He passes from merely being to also seeming-to-be-but the full manifestation of that comes later in the Gospel. (2) The theophanies of the infancy are without human glory. They come in the poverty with which the Son of God identified Himself. So we see the unsoundable depth of newness of the Gospel revelation. 


This has been a long review of the semiotic analysis done by Laurentin, yet it is merely a summary. But it is a rather good example of how this analysis can be done. Now we must ask ourselves, Of all the items mentioned (and not mentioned) in our summary, which could not have been seen without all the semiotic apparatus? It is doubtful that there is even one, though, admittedly, good insights have been presented.


Not all semiotic analyses turn out even this well. E. R. Leach gives us one in “Genesis as Myth” (in Myth and Cosmos, ed. J. Middleton, University of Texas Press, 1967, pp. 1-13).


Leach remarks that in the first creation story of Genesis, though creatures are told to be fruitful and multiply, the narrative nevertheless does not face the problems of life-death and incest-procreation. These, however, are dealt with in the second creation story, which begins with the opposition heaven-earth. This opposition, writes Leach, “is mediated by a fertilizing mist ... which blurs the distinction life-death.”  The second creation story also reveals oppositions: man-garden, tree of life-tree of death. Eve, in the second story, replaces the creeping things of the first story. “These creeping things,” writes Leach, “were anomalous, that is? mediating or holy, in regard to fish, fowl, cattle, and beasts. As to Eve, Leach says that she is “anomalous to the opposition man versus animal.” There is still another mediation: the serpent, one of the creeping things, “is anomalous to the opposition man versus woman.” Reproduction becomes possible only after the human pair eat the forbidden fruit and, thus, become aware of sexual differences.  In the next stage, the antithesis of the first and last three days of creation in the first narrative reappears in Cain the gardener and Abel the herdsman. Abel’s offering of animals is more pleasing to God. Cain’s killing of his brother compares with the incest committed by Adam. Hence God’s questioning and cursing of Cain, and of Adam and Eve and the serpent, show the same form. “So,” says Leach, “Cain’s sin was not only fratricide but also incestuous homosexuality.”  Still another stage is discovered by Leach. “Though heterosexual incest is evaded.” he writes, “the theme of the homosexual incest in the Cain and Abel story recurs in the Noah saga when drunken Noah is seduced by his own son, Ham.”  Has this analysis uncovered the real meaning of Genesis? Hardly.  Just a word about analysis of the parables, an area being actively pursued in the U.S. at present. Dan O. Via (“Parable and Example Story,” in Semeia, vol. 1, 1974, pp. 105-133) has taken the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) and put it within the actantial model we saw above. Thus the sender is the Samaritan, the object sent is aid and healing, the receiver is the traveler. Then on the lower line, the helper consists of oil, wine, donkey, innkeeper, robbers (!). The subject is again the Samaritan. The opponents are the priest and Levite. (But they did not oppose, they just neglected.) But Via notes that if we took a broader text, Luke 10:25-37, we would get this model: The sender is Jesus, the object is the meaning of neighbor, the receiver might be the scribe. On the lower line, the helper is the story, Jesus is the subject, the opponent is Jewish exclusivism represented by the scribe. There is, of course, truth in all this. But where is the added illumination?


John Dominic Crossan suggests (In Parables, Harper & Row, 1973, especially pp. 53-78) that just as there is a twofold function of myth-to mediate the reconciliation of a particular contradiction and to create belief in the permanent possibility of reconciliation-so, too, but in contrast the parable on the surface creates a contradiction within a situation in which one feels secure but, on a deeper level, challenges the fundamental principle of reconciliation. So a parable is a story whose artistic surface structure makes it possible for its deep structure to invade us, in direct contradiction to what one expects. So, the coming of the kingdom implies reversal, because the kingdom overturns our security and leaves us in utter insecurity.


What has the Church said about structuralism? Not a thing up to the present.



1 Joseph Fitzmeyer, Christological Catechism (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), p. 121.

2 He first outlines what others have proposed: The Group of Lyon (CADIR), the Association de la Roche-Colombe (Paris), and Agnes Gueret. He is closest in his views to the latter.


Chapter 25: Study of Jewish Language and Literature


Why study Jewish culture, civilization, language, literature? Because all but one of the writers of Scripture were Jews. The exception, St. Luke, shows more Semitic influence, in his Greek, than do the Semites themselves. Further, Jesus and His Apostles were all Semites. Clearly, we can hope to learn much of the physical world and the thought world in which Jesus and the scriptural writers lived from a study of Jewish things.


It is now contrary to fashion to write a life of Christ. Admittedly, we cannot be sure of the chronology of His life, yet such works as the Synopsis of the Gospels by Aland not only put texts of the Gospels in parallel columns, they also try to give a reasonable estimate of the chronological sequence. One could fill that data in and construct a life of Jesus. Such lives used to be plentiful. We suspect that a large reason for their present scarcity is the huge skepticism injected by Bultmann and others who say that there is a great gap between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Some of these lives in the past, especially that by Edersheim, added a great deal to our knowledge of Jewish customs and Jewish life in general. Further, St. Paul was trained as a rabbi at the feet of the great Rabban Gamaliel.


At least some knowledge of the language is very fruitful. Really it is necessary for solid research. For example, when we read St. Paul, we must constantly ask, What is the Semitic word he has in his mind? Thus when Paul says “justice,” he has in mind the broader concept of the Hebrew sedaqah, the virtue that impels one to follow all morality. And when Paul says “know,” he usually thinks of Hebrew yada, which means both “know” and “love.” When he writes “many,” he normally has in mind Hebrew rabbim, “the all who are many.”  Much Jewish literature is intertestamental, that is, written between the end of the Old and the start of the New Testament. An especially important portion of Jewish literature-which, in time, spreads beyond the intertestamental period as well-is of the apocalyptic type (see chapter 13). Some scholars consider it, not as a separate genre, but merely as literature that is preoccupied with the end of all history. That description, however, does not fit well with all the actual examples. Some of the more important works of this kind are: the Books of Enoch (the first book is probably second century BC; the second, probably late first century AD; the third, fifth century AD); the Apocalypse of Zephaniah (first century BC or AD); the fourth book of Ezra (also called Esdras, late first century AD). There are also Apocalypses of Sedrach, Baruch, Abraham, Adam, Elijah, and Daniel.  St. Paul, in writing to the Colossians, the Ephesians, and perhaps the Corinthians, is struggling against opponents whom he does not name. Would that he had. They may well be apocalyptic-type speculators, though they could equally well be a type of Gnostic. Especially in Colossians, Paul counters the claims that we must attend, not only to Christ, but to some spirit powers, or aeons, whom his opponents consider good but whom, we soon see, Paul considers to be evil spirits (see Colossians 2:15).


The names Paul gives groups of these spirits (following his opponents) include  principalities, powers, dominations, and so on- names that were once thought to belong to nine choirs of angels but that we now know were used by Gnostics or apocalyptic speculators for other spirit powers.


Another example of apocalyptic thought is in fourth Ezra 7:32, which says that before the Judgment, “the earth shall give up those who are asleep in it, and the chambers shall give up the souls which have been committed to them.”1 The same thought is found in many of the Fathers of the Church-that the souls of the just, even when fully purified, must wait somewhere until the Judgment before they receive the Beatific Vision (for example, in St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.31 and in Tertullian, De anima 55). Only martyrs attain the Beatific Vision at once after death.


Again, in Luke 13:23, Jesus is asked point blank, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” We know from apocalyptic that this question was much discussed, as for example, in fourth Ezra 7:45-61. Answers tended to be pessimistic: few are saved. Now Jesus would hardly want to give the real answer.


To say few would lead many to despair; to say the majority would promote laxity. Jesus, therefore, cleverly parries the question. “Strive to enter by the narrow door,” He says. He seems to mean: Do not say that we have Abraham as our Father, as if that would suffice for salvation. See Luke 3:8 and also Genesis Rabbah 48.7, which says Abraham sits at the gate of hell and will not let any circumcised Jew enter.

We also have quite a bit of testament literature, not as extensive as the apocalyptic but of similar vintage: the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (second century BC); the Testament of Job (first century BC or AD); Testaments of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (first to third centuries AD); Testament of Moses (first century AD); Testament of Solomon (first to third centuries AD); Testament of Adam (second to fifth centuries AD). Some of these are really also apocalyptic in character. There are some clearly Christian passages in the testaments, and also affinities with the Dead Sea Scrolls, so debate still goes on as to whether the testaments are basically Jewish works with Christian interpolations or Christian works employing Jewish sources.2  As we noted in chapter 4, we are very fortunate to have Targums. These are ancient Aramaic translations, plus commentary, on the Old Testament. Some of these were officially recognized by the Jewish authorities: Targum Onkelos on the Pentateuch, and Targum Jonathan on the Prophets. In 1949 a Targum Neofiti was discovered in the Vatican Library. It is part of the Palestinian Targum on the Pentateuch, along with the Jerusalem Targum and the Pseudo-Jonathan. 


The dates of the Targums are disputed. A respectable scholarly opinion is that of Samson Levey: “The official Targumim are quite circumspect about adducing Messianic interpretations from the Hebrew text.... We may conjecture that the reason might be that the official Targumim stem from Maccabean times [second century BC], when hope for a restoration of the Davidic kingship could constitute treason to the Hasmomean dynasty” (The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation, Hebrew Union College, 1974, p. 142). Levey gives us all the Old Testament texts that the Targums see as Messianic. No matter what the date, the Targums do this without the use of hindsight from fulfillment in Christ. The writers, of course, rejected Christ. R. Brown, as we saw in chapter 20, thinks the Old Testament prophecies would be good only with hindsight. 


Levey is admirably honest in saying that “Christians tended to base their arguments against Judaism on verses of Scripture, and the Targum-interpretation of those verses was often deliberately designed to exclude the Christian argument” (p. 152, n. 10). This is clearly the case with the Targum on Isaiah 53, which makes the meek lamb into an arrogant conqueror. (See Paul: The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History, H. J.  Schoeps, tr. H. Knight, Westminster, 1961, p. 129. Schoeps makes the same admission.) Yet Levey gives many Targums that help one to understand prophecies about Christ.


During about a ten-year period starting in 1947, Bedouins found scrolls and fragments of some six hundred manuscripts in eleven caves on the west side of the Dead Sea, about ten miles south of Jericho, near a cite called Qumran. A sectarian community lived there, seemingly from around 135 BC to about 31 BC, and again from about 1 AD to 68 AD Most likely these people were one of three sects of Jews described by Josephus as Essenes (Antiquities 13.5.9 n. 171). (The other two sects were the more familiar Pharisees and Sadducees.)  The Essenes seem to have fled there in a revolt against Syrian dominance that began under the Maccabees in 167 BC But the Essenes disapproved of the Maccabees taking over the high priesthood, and considered Jerusalem profaned. The settlement was interrupted from 31 to 1 BC, perhaps owing to an earthquake, plus suspicions by Herod. The settlement was finally destroyed by Roman armies in 68 AD in the First Jewish War.


At first, grossly exaggerated and distorted reports made it seem that these discoveries would almost destroy Christianity, showing it to be largely a copy of Essenism. No scholar now believes such things. But we have gained much from these finds. Some Targums have been found there. The most  important among them is a Targum on Job from Cave 11, probably written in the second century BC Still more important, at least parts of nearly all books of the Old Testament have been found at Qumran. Some of these copies are a thousand years older than the best copies we used to have. But this does not mean they are superior.


From the Dead Sea Scrolls we learned that the text of the Hebrew Old Testament was not yet standardized at that time. It existed in more than one form. Standardization came in the second century. Some texts from Qumran agree with the Septuagint, the old Greek translation of the Old Testament that we used to think was rather loose but now see is apt to be precise, in a different version.


We also learned from the Qumran scrolls that some deuterocanonical books-books not in general accepted by ancient Hebrews- which we had before largely in Greek were found in Aramaic (Tobit, for example) or Hebrew (Sirach, for example) at Qumran. We also have from Qumran manuscripts of some well-known apocryphal books, such as Enoch, Jubilees and some of the testaments of the patriarchs. We used to have them, in some cases, only in Ethiopic translated from a Greek translation. Now we have some in the original Aramaic or Hebrew.


Finally, Qumran has yielded some documents written by the Essenes themselves-their rule of life, their visions of God’s plans, and their commentaries on some of the Old Testament prophets. These commentaries are of the type called pesher. The Essenes updated, for example, Habakkuk, to apply to their own times.


It is especially interesting to notice that the Essenes strongly emphasized the coming of the Messiah and the need for reform. We know that the Essenes stressed celibacy. This shows that celibacy was perceived as a value. It also removes an objection to Mary’s resolve of virginity.


Finally we come to the works of the rabbis, recalling, as we said, that St. Paul was trained as a rabbi. His teacher was the great Rabban Gamaliel I. (Rabban, a very special title, was not given to all rabbis.) Gamaliel was so great that a maxim of the rabbis says, “When Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, the glory of the Law ceased and purity and abstinence died” (Sotah 9.15). He intervened on behalf of the Christians in Acts 5:34 ff. Gamaliel followed the school of Hillel (from a few decades earlier), which was in general less severe in its interpretations than the school of Shammai. The written law had 613 precepts, but the oral law had many more. The Pharisees considered both of equal authority, in fact: “It is a worse thing to go against the words of the Scribes than the words of the [written] law” (Sanhedrin 11.3). We can see the problem when Jesus clashed with these interpretations, though not with the law itself.


The content of the Law was in two categories: halakah, norms for living; and haggadah, which was mainly historical and largely narrative. The rabbis would deduce many rules for living from the law, using seven rules of interpretation (hermeneutic) attributed to Hillel, later expanded to thirteen by Rabbi Ishmael.  These rules were for the halakah; there were other rules for the haggadah.


At first, all this was transmitted by memory (an echo comes in Sirach 39:1-3). This oral transmission lasted until more than a century after the time of Paul; but near the end of the second century AD, there was a written collection that won official approval. This collection, called the Mishnah (“repetition”), was made by Rabbi Judah na-Nasi (also called Judah the Holy). It contained the decisions up to that time by rabbis who were called the Tannaim. Later, further commentary was added from the rabbis called the Amoraim, whose writings cover the period from 200 AD to about 500 AD This commentary was called the Gemara. The Talmud is formed from the Mishnah (not including tractates, however), and the Gemara (not provided for all tractates). There are two Talmuds, the Babylonian and the Palestinian.


The Mishnah gives decisions that are, for the most part, not explicitly related to Scripture. Hence, in the period of the Tannaim, other interpretations based more directly on Scripture, were made. These are called Halakic Midrashim. Halakah pertains to legal matters. Midrash basically is an investigation of a text to discover its hidden meanings and apply them to new situations. Not all define midrash in the same way. (Compare Hebrew darash, “to seek or to examine.”) Especially important are the commentary on the legal section of the Exodus (the Mekilta); the Sifra, on Leviticus; and the Sifre, on Numbers and Deuteronomy. The older midrashim-both halakic and nonhalakic-were handed down and developed more, and come down to us in such collections as the Midrash Rabbah and other midrashim of homiletic nature.


The Mishnah is divided into six main orders, each of which is subdivided into treatises, making a total of sixty-three treatises.


A doctor of the law would solve cases, in a casuistic way, using decisions thus collected from the most authoritative rabbis, and he would add his own.


Some matter is not just casuistic but almost scrupulous. A whole treatise in the Mishnah is called Bezah (egg). Here was one problem: Suppose a hen lays an egg on a festival day following the Sabbath. May one eat the egg The school of Shammai said one might eat it; the school of Hillel said no. One should not profit by illegal work done by the hen (1:1). Again, suppose a cripple has a wooden leg. Rabbi Meir said he may go out with it on the Sabbath; Rabbi Jose said no (Shabbath 6.1.8). Paul would have learned such legal decisions in great numbers.


However, there is another side to Jewish piety, which is warm, shows an appreciation of the Fatherhood and the love of God. (On this aspect, see Palestinian Judaism in the Time of Christ, J. Bonsirven, tr. W. Wolf, McGraw-Hill, N.Y., 1965; and Aspects of Rabbinic Theology: Major Concepts of the Talmud, Solomon Schechter, Schocken, N.Y., 1969.)


Besides the Mishnah, there is another, still larger, collection, called the Tosefta. It consists of additions to the Mishnah. In its present form, it was probably not edited until the fourth century. But the matter on the whole is much older and really forms a sort of supplement to the Mishnah.


In order to use these rabbinic materials as a help in understanding the New Testament, we must first ask about the dates of the material. Some of the material is easily dated, for instance, when the name of the rabbi who made the decision is given. Sometimes we have this form: “Rabbi X said in the name of Rabbi Y.” But there are many other sayings, both halakah and haggadah, without any rabbi’s name attached. It is likely that most of the anonymous material of the halakic type comes from the period 133-200 AD (between Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi). This, of course, helps. But there is a further problem.


Most of the tradition was formulated and written down after 70 AD, the date of the fall of Jerusalem. It seems that the legal matter has been mediated through one man, Johanan ben Zakkai, who belonged to the school of Hillel. So much of the legal tradition of the opposite school, that of Shammai, has been lost. The same is probably true of the nonlegal tradition. Until shortly before the Jewish War of 66-70, the school of Shammai was the more influential, yet its thoughts are lost to us. Further, some of what we do have is likely to be from non-Pharasiaic sources.


Even so, given the tenacity of the Jews about their traditions, many scholars think we can assume that ideas found, let us say, a century after St. Paul were current also in his day.


There are cases, of course, in which we can trace an idea both before and after 70 A. D. A specially important example is the concept of sin as a debt. Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar (late second century) wrote in Tosefta, Kiddushin 1.14 (cited from Bonsirven, p. 111): “Happy is the man who has practiced a commandment, for he has tipped the balance toward the side of merit, both for himself and the whole world. But woe to the man who has committed a transgression, for he has tipped the balance to the side of debt (hobah), both for himself and the world.” Notice both the debt concept and solidarity.


Much the same thought is found in Rabbi Akiba (50-135 AD), in Pirke Aboth 3.20. Akiba speaks of the divine shopman giving credit and then sending around the collectors to exact payment. The concept of sin as debt was also common in the time of Christ. S. Lyonnet speaks of “the notion widespread in the Aramaic milieu of primitive Christianity: sin considered as a debt” (Sin, Redemption, and Sacrifice, Biblical Institute Press, 1970, p. 32). For example, the Targums may use Aramaic hobah, “debt,” for sin. The Greek word aphienai is common in the Synoptic Gospels to mean “forgive,” but the connotation is that of canceling a debt. In the Our Father (Matthew 6:12), we find Greek opheilemata, “debts,” for sins.


St. Paul, in Colossians 2: 14, speaks of Christ as having, by His death, “canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands.” Farther back, it is at least highly probably that the Hebrew concept of bisheggagah, involuntary sin-that is, transgression of a law of God done unwittingly-reflects God’s holiness and concern for the moral order that debts be paid even when personal guilt is absent (compare Leviticus 4:27; Genesis 12:17; Luke 12:47-48; I Corinthians 4:4).


The purpose here has been to provide a concrete example of how this work can be done to ensure, in a particular case, that a later rabbinic text reflects the thought world of the New Testament. In particular, we think of St. Paul in Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I

complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the church ....”


Now of course, Christ, the individual, lacked no suffering. But the whole Christ, of which Christians are the members, may be lacking (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Colossians 1:18). One member may fail to do his part in rebalancing the scales of which Rabbi Simeon teen Eleazar spoke. But another member can make up for this failure-and Paul feels it part of his duty to do so. This same concept of the objective order is strongly present in the doctrinal introduction to Pope Paul VI’s Indulgentiarum Doctrina.


The tendency is widespread today to water down the sense of Colossians 1:24, to say that as a matter of fact Paul had to suffer much in preaching the Gospel. Of course he did. But the richer meaning comes out when we set his words against the background of the thought world of Judaism in his time.



1 Cited from The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), p. 538.

2 For all of these, and for many more nonscriptural Jewish works, we are fortunate to have the solidly scholarly two-volume work edited by Charlesworth, cited above.


Chapter 26: Biblical Archaeology


Biblical archaeology is another immense area of study, so large that we can do no more than give an introduction to it. The remains that have been dug up are of two basic kinds, written and unwritten.


Genesis 23:3-20 tells us that when his wife, Sarah, died at Hebron, Abraham bought land from the Hittites to use as a burial place. There was once a great Hittite empire in the eastern part of Asia Minor, extending down into Canaan at the point of its greatest expansion (two periods: 1900-1650 BC and 1430-1200 BC). Some Hittite monuments had already been discovered in the seventeenth century, but it was only in the late nineteenth century that much excavating was done. A German expedition that began in 1906 found Hittite state archives, more than twenty thousand clay tablets written in cuneiform (wedge-shaped writing). The writing was not deciphered until 1915, when the Czech F. Hrozny managed to read the tablets and found that the language was related to Indo-European (the ancestor of most families of languages of Europe and some in India).


Special interest has centered on the Hittite vassal treaties. Pioneer work in this field was done by G. E. Mendenhall (see Biblical Archaeologist Reader, vol. 3, pp. 25-53, and D. J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant, rev. ea., Biblical Institute, Rome, 1978). There are some resemblances in format and wording between such Hittite treaties and the covenant described in Exodus 20 and Joshua 24. However, it does not seem likely that the Hebrews deliberately modeled the covenant on the Hittite treaties. Similarities are not nearly close enough to require that, and we know similar situations can call forth similar responses.


Ugarit, though not mentioned in the Bible, has yielded a rich find of tablets. It is a city on the Phoenician coast that flourished in the period about 2000-1200 BC The modern site is called Ras Shamra. About fourteen hundred tablets in Ugaritic have been found, in a cuneiform that is close to alphabetic.  From the Ugaritic myths we learn how to understand better the language found in Amos 1:3 to 2:8 and Proverbs 30:18-31. Ugaritic often uses a synonymous parallelism wherein a thought is repeated in different words in the next line. The synonym for any number is the number plus 1. Amos 1:3, for example, says, “For three transgressions of Damascus and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.” The two numbers are considered the same. Similarly, ten thousand becomes a synonym for one thousand (see Stories from Ancient Canaan, ed. and tr. by M.D. Coogan, Westminster, 1978; esp. pp. 1418).


Since Ugaritic is a Semitic language rather similar in some ways to Hebrew, Mitchell Dahood, in his three-volume commentary on, and translation of, the Psalms (Anchor Bible, 16-17A), thinks he can throw light on, and revise lines of, the Psalms. For there are many words in Hebrew whose meaning is not fully certain (about seventeen hundred words occur only once in the Hebrew Bible).


Ugaritic, Dahood thought, could shed light. In Anchor Bible 17A, (pp. xii-iii), Dahood’s revisions could lead scholars to revise their notions of how early the Hebrews came to know of retribution in the future life. His conclusions have been challenged, but they are still highly probable.  A related development comes from the finds at Ebla (now Tell Mardikh), a city estimated to have had about a quarter of a million people. Uncovered in 1974-1976, it yielded over sixteen thousand tablets, eighty percent of which are in Sumerian, about twenty percent in Eblaite, a Semitic language that, according to Dahood, is closer to Hebrew than is Ugaritic. Unfortunately, the value of the find is still clouded by bitter fighting between Paolo Matthiae, chief archaeologist and Giovanni Pettinato, first epigrapher of the expedition. Before his early death, in 1982, Dahood worked closely with Pettinato. His proposals can be seen in “Afterword: Ebla, Ugarit, and the Bible”, (The Archives of Ebla, Doubleday, 1981, PP 271-321). Many personal names not before known outside the Bible are found in the tablets: Adam, Eve, Jabal, Noah, Hagar, Bilhah Michael. Israel, and others. Pettinato and Dahood believed that there are theophoric names (names with a divine element built in, such as Mi-ka-ya, “Who is like Ya?”) that show Yahweh was known in Ebla long before the time of the Bible. The tablets probably are to be dated 2400-2250 BC


The ancient site of Mari, on the Euphrates River, was excavated in the 1930s and 1950s. Mari was great in the period 1750-1697 B.C King Zimri-Lim, the last king of  Mesopotamia there, was a contemporary of the great Hammurabi of Babylon, who was a contemporary of Shamsi-Adad I of Assyria. Since the latter’s dates are known, we can date Zimri-Lim. This may well have been the period of Abraham. Twenty thousand clay tablets have been found there.


To the east, and somewhat north of Mari, is ancient Nuzi, excavated in the 1920s. There five thousand cuneiform tablets have been found-several hundred years after the Mari tablets. But the Nuzi tablets shed light on some practices of the patriarchs, for example, Abraham’s adoption of the slave Eliezar (Genesis 15:2-3), who was later replaced by Isaac. This is in accord with Nuzi custom.


Again, if a Nuzi wife were sterile, she was expected to give her husband a slave concubine to provide children, as we see in Genesis 16:2. These things do not prove that Abraham belonged in this period, but they do help show his historical character.


Fascinating texts also come from Amarna, called Akhtaton in ancient times. Situated on the Nile between Thebes and Memphis, it was the capital of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who changed his name to Akhenaton and worshiped the sun disc instead of Amon. Among the 375 items found there are many letters from vassal rulers in Palestine and Syria, some of them almost frantically asking help against the Hapiru, a name similar to Hebrew.  The Dead Sea Scrolls, which were reviewed in chapter 25, should also be mentioned. There are other written finds, but now let us turn to the unwritten matter.


Does archaeology prove the Bible is right? While it supports some things, archaeology raises problems about other things. Very many problems cluster around the date of the Exodus, the departure of the Hebrews from Egypt, and deal with the cities they were supposed to have conquered or been involved with

soon before or after the entrance of the Hebrews into Canaan.

While in the desert, the Hebrews spent much time around Kadesh-Barnea. But there seems to have been no settlement there until much later, about the tenth century. Then the king of Arad defeated the Hebrews near Hormah. But Arad seems to have been uninhabited c 2700-c 1100 BC, and Hormah was not occupied between 1500 and 1200. The Hebrews would have seen these sites in a first attempt to come into the promised land through the Negeb, the south.


Later they came around the east side of the Dead Sea and skirted Edom and Moab. The Hebrews conquered the kings of Hesbon and Bashan, and of course, caused the walls of Jericho to fall. But there are problems: Hesbon was not inhabited in the millennium before 1200, and there was no notable city of Jerichoafter about 1500. Some archaeological data, however, do agree with the Old Testament. Lachish and Hazor, for instance, were destroyed c 1250-1200.


In chapter 15 it was suggested that probably the genre of the Book of Joshua, which describes much of the conquest, was at least similar to that of epic, an idealized story of the great beginnings of a people. Similarly, it is likely that at least parts of Exodus are somewhat epic in character. Some scholars become so free in their interpretations as to say that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not really grandfather, father, and son, but tribal heads who later were associated in an epic pattern. Further, there are speculations that the Hebrews did not go down into Egypt all at once or leave all at once. Some say that the four major biblical traditions (Exodus-Sinai Wilderness-Conquest) belonged originally to distinct groups. G. E. Mendenhall thinks that the conquest was just some guerilla campaigns by people already on the scene at the time of a great breakdown of the city cultures in Palestine in the period 1300-1200 B.C.1  These proposals are much too radical. Yet genre gives us much freedom here. Exodus 12:38 does tell us that “a mixed multitude also went up with them,” that is, with the Hebrews. Further, Joshua 8:3035 tells how Joshua, after the conquest of Ai, held a great covenant ceremony on Mount Ebal. He seems to have met no interference, though Mount Ebal was near the city of Shechem, the excavations of which show it to have been powerful at that time, though Joshua was not said to have conquered it. Could it be that the Hebrews had friends or relatives already in that area, perhaps Hebrews who were in an earlier segment of the Exodus, or even Hebrews who had not been in Egypt at all? (See Biblical Archaeology, G.  Ernest Wright, revised 1962, Westminster, pp. 76-77.) An epic genre would be quite capable of taking in these proposals.


The problems cluster around the highly uncertain date of the Exodus. The root of the trouble is that the Old Testament does not give us the name of the Pharaoh who was on the throne when the Exodus took place. This is in accord with normal Egyptian practice. The real name of the king was too sacred; he was a god. Pharaoh was used for all kings. Meaning “Great House,” the use of the word Pharaoh was loosely comparable to our use of “the White House.” Other means must be used to date the Exodus.


There have been two groups of theories. One, which has long enjoyed favor, starts with Exodus 1:11, which tells how the Pharaoh oppressed the Hebrews with forced labor: “... and they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Ramses.” Now Raamses II (c 1290-1224 BC) moved his capital to the region of the delta and began building projects there, including the city of Raamses. So the Pharaoh of the oppression and of the Exodus would probably be Ramses, which would date the Exodus about 1300-1280 BC The next Pharaoh, Merneptah, put up a stele, a monument claiming he had defeated the Hebrews in the Canaan area, around 1220 BC Further, it is claimed, the rapid rise of Joseph to became vizier in Egypt is more easily explained if the kings then were the foreign Hyksos (perhaps including Semites), who dominated Egypt c 17301570. Then when the Hyksos were expelled and a new dynasty came, there would be a new Pharaoh who “did not know Joseph” (Exodus I :8). This theory is quite tempting, though the evidence for it is hardly conclusive.


An older theory is again gaining favor. This view starts from I Kings 6: 1, which says: “In the four hundred and eightieth year after the people of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign ... he began to build the house of the Lord.” Now Solomon probably began to reign about 961 BC, so his fourth year would have been about 957 BC On that calculation, the Exodus would have come around 1437 BC We must say “around” since the number 480 is the product of 12 x 40-both highly favored numbers in Hebrew approximations.


We should still suppose, nonetheless, that a date sometime in that century is correct, according to this theory. If we accept 1437 BC as the approximate date of the Exodus and then add the 430 years that Exodus 12:40 says the Hebrews spent in Egypt, we get around 1867 BC for the entrance into Egypt.

Some will object that this is too early for the Hyksos. But Joseph gained power with the help of Providence, so there is no need to suppose that favor from foreign-born Hyksos was necessary. Of course, the 430 years in Egypt is only approximate, but the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew says that “the dwelling of the sons of Israel, which they spent in Egypt and in Canaan, [was] 430 years.”


Galatians 3:17 gives 430 years for the period between the promise to Abraham and the giving of the law on Sinai. Clearly, we cannot press the numbers tightly, knowing the inclination of the Hebrews to use very round numbers. In this connection, the Hebrew of Jonah 3:4 has Jonah threatening destruction to Nineveh in forty days; the Septuagint of the same has three days. It seems the number was round, very round, and the Septuagint translators felt three expressed it better for Greek speakers. (Review the matter of variant traditions, which was explored in chapter 15.) This figure of about 430 years allows us to estimate the approximate period of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  These dates fit well with other known data.


This older theory has recently been revived and much improved in a new book by John J. Bimson, Redating the Exodus and Conquest (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, vol. 5, University of Sheffield, England, 1978). Bimson places the Exodus at about 1470 BC Allowing a full forty years for the wandering in the desert, the fall of Jericho would have been around 1430 BC This date, as Bimson shows with new evidence, would fit with all the existing archaeological information on Jericho and many other sites. In fact, a review in Catholic Biblical Quarterly (vol. 42, January 1980, pp. 88-90) says: “The MB II C destruction of Jericho is everything one could ask for Joshua.... And so it goes down the list of relevant sites, with the exception of Ai and Heshbon.” Bimson replies, (p. 64), that we need not identify the later village of Ai with the one destroyed by Joshua, (p. 69), that Heshbon need not have been a fortified site at the time of Joshua.


Kenneth Kitchen, of the University of Liverpool, adds some helpful observations in The Bible In Its World: The Bible and Archaeology Today (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1977, pp. 10-15). Kitchen notes that the mud-brick buildings of the ancient Near East could gradually have been swept away by wind, sand, and rain. Further, excavations are very costly, and not always is a site completely excavated. For example, ancient Ashdod covers about seventy acres of lower city area and another twenty acres of acropolis. But by 1977 only one and a half acres had been excavated. As to the site of Ai. only a tenth of the site of Et-Tell (supposed to be Ai) had been excavated by 1977. Only a small portion of Jericho has been excavated. There can also be site shift. When people no longer could live  comfortably on the crest of their mound, they might move to an adjoining area or some small distance away. This could happen more than once. Jericho was abandoned from Hellenistic times, and moved to near the springs of Ain-Sultan, onto the site that became modern Jericho (Er-Riha). But in Hellenistic and Roman times, palaces and villas were constructed at still a third site near by (Tulul Abu elAlaiq). So today there are three “Jerichos.” 


R. Brown admits this site shift in regard to Arad (whose king defeated the Hebrews near Hormah). He writes in Recent Discoveries and the Biblical World (Glazier, Wilmington, 1983, pp. 68-69): “Aharoni, the excavator, argues that in Canaanite times Arad was not at Tell Arad but at Tell el-Milh (Malhata), 7 miles southeast of Tell Arad, while Hormah was at Khirbet el-Meshash (Masos), 3 miles further west.”


So we see that archaeology at times supports the Old Testament; at times raises problems. But the problems can be solved-some by an application of the principles of genre, some by adopting the chronology proposed by Bimson, some by the use of Kitchen’s principles. So there is really no need to have recourse to the extreme reconstructions of Exodus-Sinai-Wilderness-Conquest that some propose, even though by supposing an epic genre most, if not all, of these proposals could be digested.



1 [Footnote missing.]



Early in our study we saw that only six easily observable facts are needed to prove that the teaching authority of the Church comes from Jesus. That Church, in turn, assures us that there is no error at all in Scripture.


With the help of the new techniques, we can see that the Church is completely right. Numerous problems that early in this century would have seemed unsolvable have been solved.


In regard to the methods themselves, some think that only highly trained specialists can understand them. These people are too easily awed. Anyone can grasp at least the basics of these methods, and more too. These methods are not mysterious or formidable. They are our friends. They help us understand Scripture more fully. They make it possible for us to defend its complete inerrancy. 

Biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Catholic Edition (1965, 1966).


Raymond E. Brown, “The Myth of the Gospels Without Myth,” St. Anthony Messenger (May 1971), pp. 11 46.


Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1977).


Raymond E. Brown, The Critical Meaning of the Bible (New York: Paulist Press, 1981).


Thomas A. Hoffman, “Inspiration, Normativeness, Canonicity and the Unique Sacred Character of the Bible,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly (July 1982). Pp.  447-469.


R. Lewin, “Evolutionary Theory Under Fire,” Science. Vol. 210 (November 21, 1980), pp. 883-887.


A. J. Mattill, “The Value of Acts as a Source for the Study of Paul,” Perspectives on Luke-Acts, Charles H. Talbert, ed. Special Studies Series No.  5 (Danville, VA: [National] Association of Baptist Professors of Religion, 1978). Pp. 76-98.


Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).