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First printed in:  THE DOWNSIDE REVIEW Vol. 108 No. 372 July 1990

THE year 1964 was a seminal year for Gospel studies. In that year two events took place that were to have far-reaching effects in this particular discipline, for it saw the publication in the United States of America of Professor William R. Farmer's The Synoptic Problem and in Rome of an "Instruction on The Historical Truth of the Gospels" issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission entitled Sancta Mater Ecclesia.

The former signalled the first breach in the united front of the "Protestant Establishment'' that had come to support the priority of the Gospel of Mark, and the latter the first official approval in the Catholic Church of free discussion of source theories contrary to the traditional priority of Matthew. The ensuing twenty-five years have witnessed on the one hand a small and unspectacular growth of international support for the restoration of the priority of Matthew, and on the other hand the rapid adoption by the great majority of Catholic academics of the hypothesis of the priority of Mark-a complete reversal of the traditional teaching. Surprisingly, in the public arena the Markan Priorists have hitherto had the field almost entirely to themselves, but with the recent revival of interest in the role of tradition in Gospel composition the debate is now about to enter upon a new stage.

Before Vatican II

To put the forthcoming debate into the right context it is necessary to go back to the Pontifical Biblical Commission's Reply in 1911 to the attack of the Modernists on the historicity of the Gospels, which categorically defined the traditional Catholic position. This reply was framed in its usual question and answer form:

"Having regard to the universal and unwavering agreement of the Church ever since the first centuries, an agreement clearly attested by the express witness of the Fathers, by the titles of the Gospel manuscripts, the most ancient versions of the sacred books and the lists handed on by the holy Fathers, by ecclesiastical writers, by popes and Councils, and finally by the liturgical use of the Church in the East and in the West, may and should it be affirmed as certain that Matthew, the apostle of Christ, was in fact the author of the Gospel current under his name? Answer: In the affirmative (cf. Acta Apostolicae Sedis, Vol. 3, 19 June 1911, pp. 294ff.).

The Commission, of course, has never made any claim to being an infallible body, and it is quoted not for its authority as such but as witnessing to the total commitment of the authorities of the Catholic Church at the beginning of the twentieth century to the belief that the apostle Matthew was the author of the Gospel bearing his name and thereby responsible for the text as we now have it. Nevertheless, one of the Commission's principal functions has been to provide Catholic teaching with wise and safe norms (cf. E. F. Sutcliffe, "Replies of the Biblical Commission," Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (London, 1953, S.47f.).

In the next paragraph of the same Reply the Commission held that "the verdict of tradition . . . gave adequate support to the view of Origen, Jerome, and others that Matthew [wrote before the other evangelists and that he wrote] the First Gospel in the native language then used by the Jews of Palestine for whom the work was intended."

The reader's attention is drawn to the carefully worded phrase "adequate support" which the tradition provides for the view that Matthew was the first to write a Gospel and that he wrote it originally in Aramaic or in Hebrew. The Commission thus makes a clear distinction between the overwhelming support of the Tradition for Matthean authorship and its merely adequate support for the relative order of the Synoptic Gospels and the question of the original language of Matthew. And the Commission went on in the following paragraph to assert that if the original language of Matthew was other than Greek, our Greek Matthew is certainly "identical in substance" with the hypothetical Aramaic original, which many at one time held to have been the foundation of our present Greek text.

The purpose of the above-quoted Replies of the Pontifical Biblical Commission was therefore to give Roman Catholic scholars and teachers the guidelines necessary to cope with the flood of non-Catholic scholarship emanating from Germany and France at the beginning of the century affirming the Two-Document Hypothesis, namely, that Mark was the first of the Gospels to be written and that both Matthew and Luke were dependent on Mark and the hypothetical source "Q." In a further Reply, issued on 26 June 1912 (AAS, 4, p. 465), it forbade Catholic exegetes either to embrace or to advocate the Two-Document Hypothesis. This reply reads as follows:

"Ought those to be considered faithful to the above prescriptions [concerning the authenticity and integrity of the Synoptic Gospels], who without the support of any traditional evidence or historical argument readily embrace what is commonly called the 'Two-Document Hypothesis'? . . . And are they consequently free to advocate it? Answer: “In the negative to both parts.”

Nevertheless the Commission made the following concession in the first paragraph of the same statement:

"Provided all is safeguarded that according to previous decisions must be safeguarded, especially concerning the authenticity and integrity of the three Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the substantial identity of the Greek Gospel of Matthew with its original text, and the chronological order in which they were written, in order to explain their mutual similarities and dissimilarities, is it lawful for exegetes, given the many different and contradictory opinions proposed by writers, to discuss the question freely and to have recourse to the hypotheses of Tradition whether written or oral, or also of the dependence of one Gospel on another or on others that preceded it? Answer: In the affirmative ('On the Synoptic Problem,' 26 June 1912, AAS 4, p.465)."

A matter of special concern to the learned members of the Biblical Commission with respect to the Two-Document Hypothesis was that it gave to Protestant scholars and Catholic modernists like Loisy more or less untrammelled liberty to interpret the Gospels in accordance with their own liberal theological views.

Thus the Pontifical Biblical Commission was at that time willing to grant liberty of research only on the strict understanding that the apostolic authorship and historicity of the Gospels remained unquestioned.

Consequently between 1911 and 1943 in Catholic academic circles the discussion for the most part took the line of trying to find ways and means of reconciling the Two-Document Hypothesis with the requirements of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and a number of important studies on these lines, including those of L. Vaganay and B. de Solages, appeared in the years between the two Great Wars.

Notably Père Lagrange had tried to solve the dilemma by arguing for the priority of the Aramaic or Hebrew Matthew over the Greek Mark, which could in turn be regarded as the source of our Greek version of the Aramaic Matthew. The only recorded scholarly attempt at that time to vindicate the traditional order and authorship of our Greek Matthew was that of Dom John Chapman, a patristic and New Testament scholar of the first rank.

Chapman had been educated at Oxford, where biblical studies were then under the influence of Professor Sanday and the new German scholarship, and he had there imbibed the current Two-Document Hypothesis of Markan Priority over the Greek Matthew. Forsaking the academic life he entered the Benedictine Order at the Abbey of Maredsous in Belgium about 1895, subsequently transferring his stability to Downside Abbey about 1911. Being shocked and perturbed by the Pontifical Biblical Commission's Reply forbidding Catholic professors to embrace or to teach the Two-Document Hypothesis, he determined to investigate the question for himself. When he did so he was much surprised to discover that the internal critical evidence, far from backing the priority of Mark, strongly supported the priority of our Greek Matthew over Mark. Because of circumstances beyond his control he was unable to complete his researches before his death in 1933, and it fell to his friend and disciple, Dom Christopher Butler, to secure their publication in 1937 in a posthumous work entitled Matthew, Mark and Luke (London) edited by Monsignor J.M. T. Barton.

But neither this work nor Butler's later work entitled The Originality of St. Matthew (Cambridge, 1951) was to succeed in changing the minds of English scholars working under the influence of the German Protestant discipline, whilst Continental Catholic scholars too were fast deserting the Catholic tradition and becoming supporters of the Two-Document Hypothesis. The ban on the Two-Document Hypothesis was officially maintained in Catholic university circles until the appearance of Pope Pius XII's Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), which was immediately interpreted by Catholic exegetes as giving them the signal to override the ban if they were otherwise convinced, and they wasted no time in doing so.

The Two-Document Hypothesis claims that the Gospel of Mark was composed about A.D. 70, i.e., shortly after Peter's martyrdom, from material largely derived by Mark from Peter himself. Since the same Hypothesis also makes Mark one of the sources of Matthew's Gospel, composed some fifteen years or so thereafter (about A.D. 85), Matthew likewise becomes a second-hand authority. On these assumptions, it becomes legitimate to query the historicity and apostolic authorship of both Gospels, especially that of Matthew, on account of its alleged late date and dependence on Mark as well as "Q."

This in its turn throws serious doubt on the traditional interpretation of such key passages as the Petrine text of Matt. 16:16-20 and on miracle stories like the Walking on the Water (Matt. 14:22-33) and Peter and the Temple Tax (Matt. 17:24-27). Of course, their historicity and apostolicity are today defended on other grounds, which, however, are not without being in some degree in conflict with the external or historical evidence (cf. The Order of the Synoptics, Part II passim [Mercer U.P., Macon, Georgia, 1987]).

At Vatican II

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) had been summoned by Pope John XXIII not to create new dogmas but to update the pastoral procedures of the Church, to remove anomalies and the unnecessary accretions of many centuries, and to restore the image of the Church in the eyes of the world. Among other things, Catholic biblical studies were thought to have lagged behind those of the Protestant Churches, especially with regard to the application of the historical critical method to the Gospels.

The attempt to catch up had led to a widespread swing away from the authority of the Tradition towards what were thought to be "the assured results" of internal critical research which led many to adopt the Markan Priority hypothesis, especially in the Two-Document form. In fact, the disenchantment of Catholic exegetes with their own Tradition had become so extensive that the same Biblical Commission decided that it was necessary to offer special guidance on the Synoptic Question to the Council Fathers who were then preparing the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation entitled Dei Verbum, which was to have special chapters on the New Testament.

The Commission's guidelines, entitled Instructio de Historica Evangeliorum Veritate, appeared just in time to influence the deliberations of the Council Fathers. In the first place it reasserted the complete trustworthiness of the Gospels as regards their handing on to us intact the teaching of Jesus and the vital importance of the Church's own interpretation of them; but at the same time it was silent on the question of the authenticity, i.e., apostolic authorship, of Matthew and John.

Secondly, it recommended the use of the historical critical method taken in its widest sense, together with the use of all the modern aids to exegesis, including literary criticism and linguistic studies, in order to determine the literary genre of each book. In this field the Pontifical Biblical Commission was clearly anxious for Catholic exegetes to catch up with their Protestant contemporaries. And so while remaining firmly in line with tradition over the matter of the historicity of the Gospels, the Commission realized that the state of contemporary discussion among Catholic exegetes demanded that the Council Fathers should not hamper further inquiry into, and debate on, all.aspects of Gospel research.

Furthermore because of the former ban on the Two-Document Hypothesis the Commission now felt it had a duty to do something constructive to avoid foreclosing the discussion in favour of Matthean priority, and it did so by facilitating a dialogue regarding the possible advantages of Markan priority. It was vital to let Catholic scholars find out for themselves exactly how compatible with the Tradition the Markan Priority hypothesis really is.

Hence the Instructio carefully avoided mentioning in this context the traditional apostolic authorship and order of the four Gospels; the Pontifical Biblical Commission simply recommended that the life and teaching of Jesus should be regarded as having come down to us in three stages:

1. The words and works of Christ himself (S.7).

2. The post-resurrection preaching of the apostles (S.8).

3. The composition of the Gospels by the inspired Evangelists (S.9).

In a sense these three stages seem to be obvious and unexceptionable, though, in fact, the Commission oversimplified the problem. What was new, however, and revolutionary (apart from the silence regarding the apostolic authorship) was its arbitrary separation of Part 2 from Part 3, that is to say:

1. In the first stage (S.7) which lasted until the Ascension, Jesus personally taught the apostles and prepared them for the founding of his Church on the Day of Pentecost.

2. The second stage (S.8) is that in which each of the apostles proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus according to his own temperament and memory of what Jesus had said and done, using the literary forms current in those days, e.g., instructions, stories, testimonies, hymns, etc. Nevertheless the Commission deliberately avoided the mention of the "book" form in this context, thus implicitly sanctioning the discussion of the growing doubt whether any of the existing Gospels can be directly attributed to an apostle.

3. The third stage (S.9), according to the Commission, was that in which the "sacred authors" began to operate and to compose the Gospels out of the material coming to them from the apostolic tradition. These Evangelists set down the Gospel message in writing in response to the needs of their respective churches. The Instructio, however, pointedly refrains from identifying the apostles with the "evangelists"/"sacred authors," for to have done so would have been to put the priority of Mark out of court. By means of this literary device scholars were left free to argue the Priority of Mark and so to establish whether or not it is indeed compatible with the tradition of apostolic authorship and historicity. The Council Fathers, of course, set no time-limit to these investigations and thus made it possible to collect in leisurely fashion all the evidence and thoroughly to evaluate this hypothesis.

The Instructio (the relevant parts of which are to be found in an Appendix to this article) was therefore made available to the Council Fathers in time for the debate on the text of Dei Verbum. Professor Beda Rigaux notes in his Commentary on this document (cf. Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, Vol. III [CDV III], Burns & Oates, Herder & Herder, Eng. tr. 1968, p. 259) that in fact, and rather surprisingly, "whole sentences of it passed into the text of Dei Verbum."

There was, however, one significant difference: the Council, while basically adopting the Commission's "three stage" idea, prefaced it in two places (see Ch. 2, S.7; Ch. 5, S.18-19) with a clear declaration on the apostolic authorship of the Gospels as well as on their historicity.

Furthermore, in Ch. 5 (The New Testament ), after declaring that the four Gospels are "our principal source for the life and teaching of the Incarnate Word, our Saviour," it continues as follows:

"(S. 18). The Church has always and everywhere maintained, and continues to maintain, the apostolic origin of the four Gospels. The apostles preached, as Christ had charged them to do, and then, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they and others of the apostolic age [ipsi et apostolici viri] handed on to us in writing the same message they had preached, the foundations of our faith: the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

"(S. 19). Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy maintained and continues to maintain, that the four Gospels just named, whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation, until the day when he was taken up (cf. Acts 1:1-2). After the Ascension of the Lord, the apostles handed on to their hearers what he had said and done, but with the fuller understanding which they, instructed by the glorious events of Christ and enlightened by the Spirit of truth, now enjoyed" (Vatican Council II, Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents , edited by Austin Flannery, O.P., 1988 revised edition, Dominican Publications, Dublin).

In the above-mentioned text we have the official affirmation of the historicity, i.e., the historical character, of the Four Gospels, and likewise of their apostolic authorship. There is also the additional affirmation that not only were apostles involved in the composition of the Gospels but also "apostolic men," which is an acknowledgement of the tradition that, while two of the Gospels are ascribed to the apostles Matthew and John, the other two, Mark and Luke, are ascribed to "apostolic men," i.e., associates of the apostles. It is obvious that the Council Fathers had no intention of either weakening or changing the existing teaching that Matthew and John had personally composed their respective Gospels, but they felt that, without yielding any ground, and because Vatican II had a pastoral objective, they had to make room for the discussion of views which, if proved correct, would have enormous implications for ecumenism as well as for future scholarship.

The influence of the Instructio is to be clearly seen in the sentences that follow the words "now enjoyed." For Dei Verbum forsakes the word "apostles" in favour of "the sacred authors" (Auctores sacri ) for the rest of its S.19, which reads as follows:

"The sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or already in written form, others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches, while keeping the form of proclamation, but always in such a fashion that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus (ut vera et sincera de Iesu ) . . . . Whether they relied on their own memory and recollections or on the testimony of those who 'from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word,' their purpose in writing was that we might know the 'truth' concerning the things of which we have been informed (cf. Luke 1:2-4)."

Regarding the above Section 19 of Dei Verbum we may summarize our observations as follows:

1. The unhesitating repetition of the affirmation of the historicity and authorship of the four Gospels.

2. By granting this indulgence to try out new theories the Fathers showed themselves aware of the tension that necessarily exists between the data of the tradition and new theories, and this comes to the surface when they state that the Evangelists so wrote while keeping the form of proclamation [they did so] always in such a fashion that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus (ut vera et sincera de Iesu ).

3. By employing the phrase "the sacred authors," a deliberate ambiguity is introduced into the text at this point. While the reader may be expected to understand the terms "sacred authors" or "evangelists" as "the apostles and apostolic men'' mentioned in S.18 and the first two sentences of S.19, it is logically and grammatically possible to interpret these terms without any difficulty in the remainder of S.19 as referring instead to "post-apostolic authors," i.e., second-generation Christian writers and scribes.

In this manner the Council Fathers provided a formula to allow room for entirely unpressurized discussion of the Markan priority hypothesis, in the expectation that, in the long run, the truth would be best served in this way. Moreover, Dei Verbum deliberately disregarded the question of the order of the Gospels and the problems posed by literary criticism; and it had nothing to say as to how, when and where the apostles committed their preaching to writing, thus making allowance for a broader interpretation of the notion of authorship.

The freedom to explore all the possibilities of the Markan priority hypothesis in order to discover its relationship to the historicity of the Gospels seems, however, to have been mistaken by many Catholic exegetes as authority for abandoning not only apostolic authorship but also historicity in the generally accepted sense. But the Council had clearly shown in the preceding paragraph (S.18) that it had no such intention and that it was simply maintaining strict neutrality between the competing hypotheses regarding the Gospel sources.

As Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: "It is in accordance with the best conciliar tradition that the Church's teaching office should not decide academic controversies at a Council" (CDV III, 16). But Dei Verbum certainly encouraged the use of historical critical methods according to Catholic norms, cf. J. A. Fitzmyer, A Christological Catechism (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 22-23, 97ff.

The Situation Today.

Since the adoption of the priority of Mark over Matthew and Luke has been the generally agreed basis of most exegesis since Vatican II, this hypothesis has to take primary responsibility for the adoption by Catholic scholars of positions seemingly contrary to the tradition of the apostolicity and historicity of the Gospels. In fact, it is today notorious that the tradition of Matthean authorship is rejected in almost every Catholic university and seminary, and as a corollary the full historicity of Matthew has largely been abandoned in practice, though not in theory.

It will suffice to give two random illustrations of the present situation. In the bulletin of the World Catholic Federation for the Biblical Apostolate (11, 2, 6), which has a worldwide circulation and is rather confusingly entitled Dei Verbum, there appeared in 1989 an article by a famous French scholar, Father Refoulé, on the subject of the ecumenical French Bible (the TOB, Traduction Oecuménique de la Bible ). It contains the following paragraph about the authorship of the Gospel of Matthew:

"Today the discussion regarding this question is outdated in the Catholic Church; however, only recently. According to Lyonnet, the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum (18 November 1965) is the first Church document that does not touch at all the question of the authors of the biblical books. For a biblical book to be recognized as apostolic by the Church, it suffices that she recognizes in it the faith of the apostles. In any case, because of the long duration of this debate in the Catholic Church, we should not be surprised if some theologians or even Churches maintain their traditional views."

Father Refoulé here rejects the authenticity of Matthew curtly and almost with impatience; but Father Lyonnet was only making the same point as we have just made above, namely, that for its own reasons Dei Verbum avoided the issue of apostolicity. Furthermore, Father Refoulé's definition of an "apostolic" book as one in which "the Church recognizes the faith of the apostles" is totally inadequate and theologically unsatisfactory and cannot bear careful scrutiny.

The other example of the complete volte face of modern scholars with regard to apostolic authorship is taken from The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1989). In the Introduction to his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Father Benedict T. Viviano, O.P., writes:

"The Gospel [of Matthew] early acquired prestige not only because of its intrinsic merits, . . . but because it bore the name of an apostle (mentioned 9:9, 10:3). But, since the author of the final text seems to have copied with modifications the whole Gospel according to Mark, it is now commonly thought that it is improbable that in its present form it is the work of an eyewitness apostle. Why would an eyewitness need to copy from someone who was not?

"The Gospel as we have it is best understood as a work of mature synthesis, combining the earliest Gospel, Mark, with an early collection of sayings of Jesus ("Q"), which it shares with the Gospel according to Luke. The apostle Matthew may however, have been at the start of the gospel tradition if he gathered the sayings of Jesus together in a collection like Q. . . . Granted the truth of [the Papias citation], it still leaves unsolved the question of who wrote the full Gospel in Greek as it has come down to us. On this anonymous evangelist our patristic sources are silent. We must look to the Gospel itself for information. . . ."

The above presentation of the origin, date, and authenticity of Matthew is fairly indicative of modern Roman Catholic thought on the question of apostolic authorship; it assumes the Priority of Mark as basic and unquestionable. Further on in his introduction (NJBC, 42:5) Father Viviano offers us the modern view on the historicity of this Gospel as follows:

"The evangelist [who wrote Matthew] is both a faithful transmitter of traditions he has received from the early Church about Jesus and the Christian life, and, at the same time, a creative shaper of those traditions into new combinations with new emphases."

It is clear from the above extract that the commentator has rejected the personal authorship of Matthew the apostle, and that accordingly the historicity of his Gospel now depends on a dubious chain of hypothetical documents, a scheme which is itself the result of the adoption of the Two-Document Hypothesis. Father Viviano sees the final editor of Matthew as a "creative shaper of the tradition." But it is not enough to pay perfunctory tribute to Dei Verbum by saying that the Evangelist, the final editor, is a "faithful transmitter of traditions," for what relationship can such a "creative shaper of the tradition" have to the apostle Matthew? None that is recognizable; nor can the "shaper" be safely said to impart the vera et sincera de Iesu.

Moreover, there is another consideration to be borne in mind, namely that according to the Church's tradition the infallible Spirit of God was personally given only to the twelve apostles and not to their disciples or surrogates, such as Paul's companion Barnabas. Hence it is very difficult to see how the text of Matthew could possibly be inspired if it had come into existence in the above-mentioned manner. The Church herself does not impart inspiration and has never claimed to do so; she only has the power to recognize it when she sees it, and in the past she has invariably associated divine inspiration only with the Twelve.

Yet these new views are presented with complete confidence in their correctness in spite of the fact that the Two-Document Hypothesis is itself now reckoned to be an hypothesis quite unsafe to build on. In other words such assertions as these can hardly be reconciled either with S.18 of Dei Verbum or with the teaching of the Church down to Vatican II, quite apart from the fact that they are also critically suspect.

It is inconceivable that the Fathers of Vatican II had in mind any departure from the immemorial doctrine of apostolic authorship of the Gospels. Had that been the case, they would not have introduced it in so furtive a manner. The expectation of the Council was that the Catholic scholars, who were then accepting the priority of Mark, would use it to throw clearer light on the meaning of apostolic authorship and historicity, and they did not envisage it as a serious threat to the old tradition or that it could possibly lead to its rejection.

The Council wanted a fruitful dialogue between the modern school and the traditionalists in the expectation that the truth would eventually emerge when all the arguments on both sides had been fully thought through. But the vast amount of research done on the Markan priority hypothesis over the past hundred years has failed to bring about a satisfying consensus, and the belief is growing that it is necessary to look in a new direction. In other words, it is high time to look once more at the Tradition in the light of the many insights gained from Markan priority hypotheses; in fact, an important attempt to start such a dialogue took place at the Jerusalem Gospel Symposium in 1984 but it has not yet been satisfactorily followed up.

It has been unfortunate that the combination of an exhilarating freedom to pursue historical criticism with Church approval and the reassuring support of the prestigious faculties of the German and American universities has convinced the Markan Priorists that they cannot be wrong. In these circumstances, they have hitherto seen no reason seriously to dialogue with the supporters (still relatively few in number) of the ancient tradition that Matthew after all, may be the first of the Gospels to have been written, and indeed by the apostle Matthew himself.

As far as the majority of Markan Priorists are concerned the question has been settled; they consider it, in fact, no longer worth discussing, and they are not interested in having it brought up again. For them, anyone who continues to believe that the Gospels are the memoirs of the apostles, and that it is also scientific to treat them as such, is regarded as being out of date and possibly a "Fundamentalist"! But the liberty granted by S.19 of Dei Verbum was never intended to imply any rejection of the ancient Tradition. Such a basic disagreement, as has now developed in so sensitive a matter as the apostolic authorship and authenticity of the Gospels, cannot and must not be allowed to go unresolved any longer.

Should we therefore conclude that the ancient tradition is unsound and that the apostle Matthew is in no way responsible for his Gospel in its final form, the one that we now have? Ought we therefore to conclude that the Fathers of Vatican II and earlier authorities were in error in affirming apostolic authorship and the full historicity of the four Gospels? Could it not be that the moderns are the ones in error?

There is enough uncertainty, doubt, and contradiction to require those who rely on Markan priority for their exegesis to listen patiently to the advocates of the Two-Gospel Hypothesis, who claim that there is another way of interpreting, the literary, historical and patristic evidence that satisfies the most rigorous requirements of scholarship. In other words; that dialogue, which should have got under way after Vatican II, must now be taken up again in earnest.

Taking the above examples as representative of modern Roman Catholic biblical scholarship, the following conclusions may be drawn:

1. Modern exegesis finds it exceedingly difficult honestly to comply with Dei Verbum's insistence on the full historicity of the Synoptic Gospels, the root cause of the conflict being the use of the Markan Priority Hypothesis.

2. This conflict now leaves the Catholic academic world in dire need of a more realistic source hypothesis. It therefore has no option but to consider seriously and without prejudice the only viable alternative, the Two-Gospel Hypothesis.

During the past twenty-five years the proponents of the Two-Gospel Hypothesis have put together a considerable dossier, along with a chain of arguments scientifically persuasive, which also happens to be in close agreement with the Tradition. The Two-Gospel Hypothesis cites as one of the most important early witnesses Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, in his Adv. Haer. III, 1, who wrote about A.D. 180 during the reign of Pope Eleutherius (174-189):

"We have learned the plan of our salvation from none others than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the Will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith . . . . For after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down upon them . . . and had perfect knowledge; they departed to the ends of the earth preaching the glad tidings of the good things sent from God to us . . . . So Matthew brought out a written Gospel among the Jews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel at Rome and founding the Church. But after their demise Mark himself, the disciple and recorder of Peter, has also handed on to us in writing what had been proclaimed by Peter."

It is clear from the above quotation that for Irenaeus apostolicity and historicity are mutually dependent. Note too that J. Chapman has shown that Irenaeus's final sentence means that the Gospel of Mark has recorded the viva voce words of Peter, who continues to witness after his demise by means of this Gospel (cf. The Order of the Synoptics (Mercer U.P., Macon, Georgia, 1987), 129, n. 9.

In particular, the question of the relationship between historicity and apostolicity will have to be re-examined because the discussion of their relationship was temporarily suspended with the acquiescence of Dei Verbum some twenty-five years ago. The two notions are intimately connected since the apostles were individually chosen by Jesus to be eyewitnesses of his life, death, and resurrection. Their witness could only be conveyed by their speech, by their actions and by their personal writing-their holograph- as Paul proved in the conclusion of some of his letters (e.g., Col. 4:18, 2 Thess. 3:17). First-hand witness in speech and writing was as important then as it is today.

Of course, the degree of historicity in any given instance will depend on the genre of speech employed by the apostolic eyewitness in question, although his testimony as such is always guaranteed by the Holy Spirit. If the Two-Gospel Hypothesis is found to be the correct source theory, then there will be no problem either in the apostle Matthew being the author of his Gospel or in Peter and Paul authenticating the Gospels of Mark and Luke, since it proves that Matthew and Luke were written before Mark, which is itself dated about A.D. 62, thus permitting all three Gospels to have been written during the life-span of Matthew and the "apostolic men."

A large number of books and articles dealing with the Two-Gospel Hypothesis and the weaknesses of the Two-Document Hypothesis have appeared in recent years, and the attached bibliography records some of the more important titles. The search for the truth now requires the testing of the Two-Gospel Hypothesis with the same thoroughness that has destroyed the credibility of the Two-Document Hypothesis.

Hence the critical presentation and examination of the Two-Gospel Hypothesis may take as many years as have been required to bring the Markan priority hypothesis to its present impasse (M.-E. Boismard, "The Two-Source Theory at an Impasse," NTS 26 [1980], pp. 1-17).

When all the evidence has been re-assessed and the debate concluded the expectation of the Fathers of Vatican II will have been fulfilled, and we may confidently hope that the Pontifical Biblical Commission in the not-too-distant future will be in a position either to confirm or to re-phrase its declaration of 1911 regarding the apostolicity and historicity of the Gospels.

A Select Bibliography

Butler, B. C., The Originality of St Matthew (Cambridge, 1951).

Chapman, J., Matthew, Mark and Luke, ed. J. M. T. Barton (London, 1938).

Dungan, D. L., The Sayings of Jesus in the Churches of Paul (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1971).

Dungan, D. L., ed., The Inter-relations of the Gospels: Jerusalem Gospel Symposium (1984) Papers (Peeters, Leuven, 1990)

Edmundsen, G., The Church in Rome in the First Century (London, 1913).

Farmer, W. R., The Synoptic Problem: A Critical Analysis (Macmillan, London, 1964; reprinted 1976).

Farmer, W. R., Jesus and the Gospel: Tradition, Scripture and the Canon (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1982).

Farmer, W. R., New Synoptic Studies: The Cambridge Gospel Conference and Beyond (Macon, Georgia, 1983).

Harnack, A., The Date of Acts (E. T., London, 1911).

Hemer, C. J. The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (J. C. B. Mohr, Tübingen,1989).

Kuerzinger, J., Papias von Hierapolis und die Evangelien des N. T. (Regensburg, 1983).

Longstaff, T. R. W., Evidence of Conflation in Mark: A Study in the Synoptic Problem, SBL Dissertation Series (Scholars Press, Missoula, Montana, 1977).

Mann, C. S., Mark, Anchor Bible 27 (Doubleday & Co., New York, 1986).

Massaux, E., Influence de L'Évangile de Saint Matthieu sur la littérature chrétienne avant S. Irénée (Louvain, 1950).

Meyer, B. F., The Aims of Jesus (London, 1979).

Orchard, J. B., Matthew, Luke and Mark(Koinonia Press, Ealing Abbey, 1976).

Orhard, J. B., Synopsis of the Four Gospels in English (Mercer U. P., Macon, Georgia, 1982).

Orchard, J. B., Synopsis of the Four Gospels in Greek (T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1983).

Orchard, J. B. (with H. Riley), The Order of the Synoptics (Mercer U.P., Macon, Georgia, 1987).

Orchard, J. B., (and T. R. W. Longstaff), eds., J. J. Griesbach: Synoptic and Textcritical Studies, 1776-1976 (Cambridge, 1979).

Riley, H., The Making of Mark (Mercer U. P., Macon, Georgia, 1989).

Robinson, John A. T., Redating the New Testament (London, 1975).

Sanders, E. P., The Tendencies of Synoptic Criticism (Cambridge, 1969).

Shuler, P., A Genre for the Gospels (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1982).

Stoldt, H.-H., History and Criticism of the Markan Hypothesis (Mercer U. P., Macon, Georgia; T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1982).

Stuhlmacher, P., ed. Das Evangelium und die Evangelien (Tübingen, 1983).

Taylor, R. O. P., The Groundwork of the Gospels (Oxford, 1946).

Tuckett, C. M., The Revival of the Griesbach Hypothesis (Cambridge, 1983).

Turner, E. G., Greek Papyri: An Introduction (Revised Edition, Oxford, 1980).

Walker, Wm. O., Jr., ed., Relationships among the Gospels (Trinity U. P., San Antonio, Texas, 1983).


Chapman, J. "St Irenaeus and the Dates of the Gospels," JTS, 6(1904-05), pp. 563-69.

Orchard, J. B., "The Evolution of the Gospels," CTS Publications, London, 1990.

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Siegert, Folker, "Unbeachtete Papiaszitate bei Armenischen Schriftstellern," N.T.S. 27, pp. 605-14.


Instructio de Historica Evangeliorum Veritate (Sancta Mater Ecclesia, PBC, 21 April 1964):

6.2. Interpres ut de firmitate eorum quae in Evangeliis traduntur, recte statuat, sollerter ad tria tempora traditionis attendat quibus doctrina et vita Iesu ad nos pervenerunt.

7. Christus Dominus Sibi discipulos selectos adiunxit, qui Eum ab initio secuti sunt, Eius opera viderunt verbaque audierunt et hoc modo apti fuerunt qui Eius vitae et doctrinae testes essent. Dominus, cum doctrinam ore exponebat, modos ratiocinandi et exponendi tunc temporis vulgatos sequebatur, ita ad mentem auditorum Se accommodans et efficiens ut ea quae doceret firmiter menti imprimerentur et commode a discipulis memoria tenerentur. Hi miracula aliosque Iesu vitae eventus recte tanquam facta eo fine patrata vel disposita, ut eis homines in Christum crederent et doctrinam salutis fide amplecterentur, intellexerunt.

8. Apostoli imprimis mortem et resurrectionem Domini annuntiabant, Iesu testimonium reddentes, Eiusque vitam et verba fideliter exponebant, adiunctorum in quibus auditores versabuntur, in modo praedicandi rationem habentes. Postquam Iesus a mortuis resurrexit Eiusque divinitas clare perspecta est, tantum afuit ut fides memoriam eorum quae evenerant, deleret, ut eam potius firmaret, quia fides in eis quae Iesus fecerat et docuerat nitebatur. Nec propter cultum quo discipuli exinde Iesum ut Dominum et Filium Dei venerabantur, hic in "mythicam" personam mutatus est Eiusque doctrina deformata. Non est autem cur negetur Apostolos ea quae a Domino reapse dicta et facta sunt, auditoribus ea pleniore intellegentia tradidisse, qua ipsi eventibus gloriosis Christi instructi et lumine Spiritus veritatis edocti fruebantur. Inde est quod sicut lesus Ipse post resurrectionem "interpretabatur illis" tum Veteris Testamenti tum Sui Ipsius verba, ita et illi Eius verba et gesta, prout auditorum necessitates postulabant, interpretati sunt. "Ministerio verbi instantes," variis dicendi modis, cum proprio proposito et auditorum mente congruentibus utentes praedicaverunt; nam "Graecis ac Barbaris, sapientibus et insipientibus" debitores erant. Hi vero loquendi modi quibus praecones Christum annuntiaverunt, distinguendi et perpendendi sunt: catecheses, narrationes, testimonia, hymni, doxologiae, preces aliaeque id genus formae litterariae in Sacra Scriptura et ab hominibus illius aetatis usurpari solitae.

9. Hanc instructionem primaevam, prius ore, deinde scripto traditam-nam mox evenit ut multi conarentur "ordinare narrationem rerum" qua Dominum Iesum respiciebant-Auctores sacri methodo, peculiari fini quem quisque sibi proposuit congrua, ad utilitatem ecclesiarum quattuor evangeliis consignaverunt. Quaedam e multis traditis selegentes, quaedam in synthesim redigentes, quaedam ad statum ecclesiarum attendendo explanantes, omni ope annisi sunt ut lectores eorum verborum de quibus eruditi erant, cognoscerent firmitatem. Hagiographi enim ex eis quae acceperunt, ea potissimum selegerunt quae variis condicionibus fidelium et fini a se intento accommodata erant, eademque eo modo narrabant qui eisdem condicionibus eidemque fini congruebat. Cum sensus enuntiationis etiam a consecutione rerum pendeat, Evangelistae tradentes verba vel res gestas Salvatoris, hic in alio, ille in alio contextu, ea ad utilitatem lectorum explicaverunt. Quapropter indaget exegeta quid Evangelista, dictum vel factum hoc modo narrans vel in certo contextu ponens, intenderit. Veritatis narrationis enim minime officit Evangelistas dicta vel res gestas Domini diverso modo referre Eiusque sententias non ad litteram, sensu tamen retento, diversimode exprimere. Nam, ut ait S. Augustinus: "Satis probabile est quod unusquisque Evangelistarum eo se ordine credidit debuisse narrare, quo voluisset Deus ea ipsa quae narrabat eius recordationi suggerere, in eis dumtaxat rebus, quarum ordo, sive ille, sive ille sit, nihil minuit auctoritati veritatique evangelicae. Cur autem Spiritus sanctus dividens propria unicuique prout vult, et ideo mentes quoque sanctorum propter Libros in tanto auctoritatis culmine collocandos, in recolendo quae scriberent sine dubio gubernans et regens, alium sic, alium vero sic narrationem suam ordinare permiserit, quisque pia diligentia quaesiverit, divinitus adiutus poterit invenire."

Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum 18 November 1965 (Caput V: De Novo Testamento):

18. Neminem fugit inter omnes, etiam Novi Testamenti Scripturas, Evangelia merito excellere, quippe quae praecipuum testimonium sint de Verbi Incarnati, Salvatoris nostri, vita atque doctrina.

Quattuor Evangelia originem apostolicam habere Ecclesia semper et ubique tenuit ac tenet. Quae enim Apostoli ex mandato Christi praedicaverunt, postea divino afflante Spiritu, in scriptis, ipsi et apostolici viri nobis tradiderunt, fidei fundamentum, quadriforme nempe Evangelium, secundum Matthaeum, Marcum, Lucam et Ioannem.

19. Sancta Mater Ecclesia firmiter et constantissime tenuit ac tenet quattuor recensita Evangelia, quorum historicitatem incunctanter affirmat, fideliter tradere quae Iesus Dei Filius, vitam inter homines degens, ad aeternam eorum salutem reapse fecit et docuit, usque in diem qua assumptus est (cfr. Act. 1:1-2). Apostoli quidem post ascensionem Domini, illa quae Ipse dixerat et fecerat, auditoribus ea pleniore intelligentia tradiderunt, qua ipsi eventibus gloriosis Christi instructi et lumine Spiritus veritatis edocti, fruebantur.

Auctores autem sacri quattuor Evangelia conscripserunt, quaedam e multis aut ore aut iam scripto traditis seligentes, quaedam in synthesim redigentes, vel statui ecclesiarum attendendo explanantes, formam denique praeconii retinentes, ita semper ut vera et sincera de Iesu nobiscum communicarent. Illa enim intentione scripserunt, sive ex sua propria memoria et recordatione, sive ex testimonio illorum "qui ab initio ipsi viderunt et ministri fuerunt sermonis," ut cognoscamus eorum verborum de quibus eruditi sumus, "veritatem" (cfr. Lc. 1:2-4).

Bernard Orchard, O.S.B. (1920 - 2006) was a Benedictine monk at Ealing Abbey, England. He was the general editor of A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (1953), and The Revised Standard Version of The Holy Bible (Cath. Ed. 1966). He served as chairman of the editorial committee for the New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (1969), and is the author, with Harold Riley, of The Order of the Synoptics (1987) and of other books on Scripture. He also authored the book ‘Born to Be King, a life of Christ’.

Version: 27th June 2012

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