What does Section 7 of Dei Verbum tell us?

For 2000 years Christians have maintained that two of the Apostles, who had lived with Christ, wrote gospels. And two men, associated with the Apostles, wrote another two. All four should be treated as reliable historical documents.

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued Dei Verbum as a Doctrinal Constitution in which the Church restated her position. An extract from Section 7 of Walter Abbott’s,  translation: ‘The Documents of Vatican II,’ reads:

“This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the Apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by ordinances, handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The commission was fulfilled, too, by those Apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing”.

In 1975, Austin Flannery edited: ‘Vatican Council II’. He claimed it was: ‘a newer, more accurate translation of the original sixteen documents [of the Council]’. But his version was less accurate and allowed ambiguous meaning: For example:

“This was faithfully done: it was done by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received - whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the promptings of the Holy Spirit: it was done by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation in writing."

The double intrusion of the word ‘whether’ [not in the original Latin] permitted the paragraph to imply that the authors may have received their information from the Holy Spirit alone, not directly from being with Christ or listening to his Apostles.

Abbott’s book was not reprinted, so Flannery’s book held a monopoly for many years in the Lecture Halls and classrooms. The arrival of the Internet broke this near monopoly. When we read the translation on the Vatican website we find it is the same as Abbott’s, with the exception of the word ‘apostle’ being changed to ‘Apostle’.

The original Latin reads: Quod quidem fideliter factum est, tum ab Apostolis, qui in praedicatione orali, exemplis et institutionibus ea tradiderunt quae sive ex ore, conversatione et operibus Christi acceperant, sive a Spiritu Sancto suggerente didicerant, tum ab illis Apostolis virisque apostolicis, qui, sub inspiratione eiusdem Spiritus Sancti, nuntium salutis scriptis mandaverunt.

To see which translation is correct, we are able to compare them with the wording in other languages.

Italian: Ciò venne fedelmente eseguito, tanto dagli apostoli, i quali nella predicazione orale, con gli esempi e le istituzioni trasmisero sia ciò che avevano ricevuto dalla bocca del Cristo vivendo con lui e guardandolo agire, sia ciò che avevano imparato dai suggerimenti dello spirito Santo, quanto da quegli apostoli e da uomini a loro cerchia, i quali, per ispirazione dello Spirito Santo, misero per scritto il messaggio della salvezza.

Spanish: Lo cual fue realizado fielmente, tanto por los Apóstoles, que en la predicación oral comunicaron con ejemplos e instituciones lo que habían recibido por la palabra, por la convivencia y por las obras de Cristo, o habían aprendido por la inspiración del Espíritu Santo, como por aquellos Apóstoles y varones apostólicos que, bajo la inspiración del mismo Espíritu, escribieron el mensaje de la salvación.

German: Das ist treu ausgeführt worden, und zwar sowohl durch die Apostel, die durch mündliche Predigt, durch Beispiel und Einrichtungen weitergaben, was sie aus Christi Mund, im Umgang mit ihm und durch seine Werke empfangen oder was sie unter der Eingebung des Heiligen Geistes gelernt hatten, als auch durch jene Apostel und apostolischen Männer, die unter der Inspiration des gleichen Heiligen Geistes die Botschaft vom Heil niederschrieben.

French: L'ordre du Christ a été fidèlement exécuté par les Apôtres qui, dans leur prédication orale, leurs exemples, dans ce qu'ils ont établi, ont transmis soit ce qu'ils avaient reçu de la bouche du Christ, de leurs relations intimes avec lui, de ses oeuvres, soit ce qu'ils avaient appris sous la suggestion du Saint-Esprit; cet ordre a été fidèlement exécuté par ces Apôtres et ces hommes apostoliques qui, sous l'inspiration du même Esprit Saint, ont consigné par écrit le message du salut.

The highlighted words translated into English are as follows:

Italian: what they had received from the mouth of Christ, living with him and watching his works, or what they learned from suggestions by the Holy Spirit,

Spanish: what they had received by word, by having lived with Christ and his works, or had learned through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,

German: what they received from the mouth of Christ, in company with him and through his works, or what they had learnt under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,

French: what they had received from the mouth of Christ, from their close relations with him, from his works, and that which they had learnt under the influence of the Holy Spirit …

English: what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with him, and from what he did, or what they had learned through the promptings of the Holy Spirit,

So the Flannery translation of Section 7 was misleading.

Extracts from Sections 18 and 19 of Dei Verbum support the meaning given by Abbott and the Vatican website:

“The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold, that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. For what the Apostles preached, in fulfilment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed onto us in writing: … the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John”.

“… the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation...”

So the companions of Jesus wrote two Gospels and others, using second-hand information, wrote two. If all four depended on second-hand information, the Fathers of the Council would not have made a distinction between the two sets of authors.


Christians have always recognised that borrowing took place between the Synoptic Gospels (those according to Matthew, Mark and Luke). It had also been recognised that Mark’s Gospel was in poor grammatical Greek compared with the others and that Mark had not been an eyewitness Apostle.

200 years ago some Deists (claiming to believe in God, but not in Christ) said that a borrower would have improved the Greek, not have made it worse. So Mark must therefore have written prior to the others. This became known as ‘The Markan Priority theory’. They then said that if Matthew, an eyewitness Apostle, wrote the Gospel named after him he would not have based it on second-hand material from Mark. This meant that Matthew’s Gospel was written by an anonymous, non-eyewitness at a late date.

According to this theory the ancient historians, all of whom recorded that Matthew wrote first, made a serious error and were therefore unreliable. As the Church’s claims relied on these early historians, she could not prove she was founded by Christ. It also meant that what these historians recorded regarding Luke and John could also be seen to be unreliable. By, apparently logical steps, the whole position of the Church could be undermined.

At the Second Vatican Council attempts were made to promulgate ambiguous statements. These would have enabled Catholics to deny the historicity of the Gospels. On 18th October 1965, Pope Paul refused to sign wording which would have left doubt regarding the historicity of the Gospels. So the phrase: “whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms”, [Or: “Whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts”], was added.

But many scripture scholars, in the English-speaking world, continued to promote their opinion that the Gospels were not historical. Flannery’s ambiguous translation assisted them to achieve considerable success.

For further information see: The Authors of the Gospels at

This version: 22/09/12