Part I – The Attitude of Rome: 1546 – 1965

              (For Part II  click:  HERE )

In 1546, during the 4th session of the Council of Trent under Paul III, the following decree dated 8th April, was issued:

[The council] has thought it proper, moreover, to insert in this decree a list of the sacred books ...received by this council`. [After listing those in the Old Testament it continues]. `Of the New Testament, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; the Acts of the Apostles written by Luke the Evangelist; fourteen Epistles of Paul the Apostle, to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, to the Colossians, two to the Thessalonians, two to Timothy, to Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews; two of Peter the Apostle, three of John the Apostle, one of James the Apostle, one of Jude the Apostle, and the Apocalypse of John the Apostle.

If anyone does not accept as sacred and canonical the aforesaid books in their entirety and with all their parts, as they have been accustomed to be read in the Catholic Church and as they are contained in the old Latin Vulgate Edition, and knowingly and deliberately rejects the aforesaid traditions, let him be anathema. ((TR)).

The Council used the accepted titles, authorship and order when decreeing that they were Sacred. This does not mean it was intended to attribute the authorship or sequence of any book

Dr. Henry Owen, Rector of St. Olave in Hart Street, London, shattered the long silence regarding the order in which the Gospels were written. In a small 1764 book, he stated his view that Mark used material from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke ((HO 62)). Owen devoted most of his time to pastoral work in North London, so his book was not noticed in England.

But J.J.Griesbach published an expanded version in Germany and the idea became known as ‘The Griesbach Hypothesis’. He had to face the opposition of those upholding the Jerome tradition. They claimed that as: ‘The Fathers of The Church’ (The early historians and theologians) had accepted the Matthew-Mark-Luke-John order, it was not to be questioned.

Griesbach did not research this conservative assertion to see if there was an alternative tradition. He accepted the assertion as being historically correct, but said that as this new theory was true. Therefore the historical writings must be, ‘worthless fables’. It was Griesbach who, in the world of biblical debate, set ‘Science’ against ‘History’, an antagonism soon to be copied by Markan priorists.

During this period Deism, under the name of ‘The Enlightenment’, was appearing in the Universities. Deists believed in God but rejected Christianity. They also rejected the possibility of miracles, prophecies and of being able to know what Christ had taught. In 1760 Herman Reimarus wrote to Gotthold Lessing:  ‘Our task is completely to separate what the Apostles presented in their writings (the Gospels) from what Jesus himself actually said and taught during his lifetime’ ((WGK 89)). Lessing admitted this tactic in writing. He was financially dependent on his father, a Lutheran minister, so concealed his hatred of Christianity. ((EL 12)).

He wrote to a friend that all he could do to overthrow, ‘this hateful edifice of nonsense …was to hide behind the pretence of furnishing new bases for it’.  ((EL 40)).

During 1792, Evanson, an English Deist, argued that John was not the author of the fourth Gospel ((CCHS 777a)).

The German Lutheran Church was the first to suffer from these Deist arguments. Most German atheists, like Feuerbach, began life as Lutheran theological students ((PT 149)). Friedrich Schleiermacher, while accepting modern theories, wished to be religious. He held that religion is not knowledge, creeds, doctrines or sacred books. Nor did it need philosophical reflection. It has been said:

‘For Schleiermacher, the essence of religion was piety and piety was feeling. With him every essential of modernism had arrived. Radical biblical scholarship destroys belief and there follows a desperate attempt to construct a gimcrack religious shelter out of the ruins with the help of some form of modern philosophical subjectivism. … Schleiermacher is the real founder father of Modernism’ ((PT17: 150-151)).

In 1838 Christian Weisse proposed that Mark had been written prior to both Matthew and Luke ((JJK 12)). This would place these Gospels at such a late date that they could not have been written by any of the Apostles or their secretaries. The theory would also destroy the reliability of the ancient historians and therefore of the dating of John’s Gospel.

This was the perfect argument the Deists were looking for. They were a ready-made pressure group eager to provide Weisse with support. Weisse had provided these anti-Christians with a powerful motive to become exegetes of Scripture.  And so began the tradition of anti-Christians, supported by university funds, acting as `experts` in Biblical Studies. These experts could wreak havoc by appearing to be dedicated Christians searching for the real Jesus.

In 1863 H.J.Holtzmann published a further development of the Markan priority theory. But three years later Hajo Uden Meijboom, exposed the unscientific character of Holzmann`s work ((JJK xxv)). Under the criticism of free and scholarly debate the Markan priority theory may have disappeared, but the Deists kept it alive until politics intervened in a major way.

Bismarck, the nationalist and Chancellor (Prime Minister) of Germany, came to power in 1870. He aimed to destroy the independence of the Catholic Church and her educational system. During his campaign, known as the ‘Kulturkampf’, [the culture war] the Catholic Centre Party expanded. So when the Socialists gained more seats in the Protestant areas, Bismarck needed Centre Party support in order to remain in power. In 1887, under this political pressure he lifted the threat to Catholic schools, while personally remaining bitterly anti-Catholic.

During the Kulturkampf period the Catholics had used quotations, especially from the Gospel of Matthew, to maintain their God-given right to maintain schools. So the Markan priority hypothesis, which held that the Gospel of Matthew was a late anonymous non-eyewitness composition, became of great interest to Bismarck.

The universities in Germany were government controlled and in 1874, at the height of the Kulturkampf, the young patriotic and nationalist Holtzmann was appointed to the prestigious position of head of New Testament Studies at Strasbourg University. ((WRFB 2478)).

His 1863 book was widely seen as the reason for this sudden promotion. Deists and ambitious lecturers, including a few liberal Catholics, saw their opportunity to gain promotion ahead of more independent minded colleagues. A person upholding the priority of Matthew was seen as pro-Catholic and unpatriotic at a time of nationalist fervour. ‘… any German scholar who would openly question the Markan hypothesis … would be perceived as endangering “the foundations of the stat’’. ((WRFB 2493)).

For article: ‘Bismarck and the Four Gospels’, see reference [640] on this site’s home page.

Within a generation, the Markan priority theory dominated the Scripture departments of the German Universities. Evangelicals were not indifferent to this development, and many of their professors, such as Adolf Hilgenfeld, held to their principles and suffered alongside pro-papal Catholics ((WRFB 2492)).

During the 1870 Vatican Council, the decree of Trent regarding the extent of Sacred Scripture was endorsed as part of the section on `Revelation`, paragraphs 5 and 6 ((VAT)).

At the turn of the century, English academic circles became aware of the Biblical teachings in the German universities and presumed they had emerged following unbiased extensive research and open debate. Accepting the Germans as their academic superiors in this subject, English scholars led by B.H.Streeter, adopted the Markan priority hypothesis as: ‘The assured results of modern scholarship’. ((RO 3)).

Holtzmann could be called: ‘The father of Markan priority’.  Yet in later life, while continuing to maintain Markan priority, he accepted that Luke had used the gospel of Matthew. Streeter refused to accept this because in his opinion it destroyed the need for ‘Q’ ((AJM xi)).  In this manner Markan priority and ‘Q’ came to permeate England and provide a basis for liberal theology within the Anglican Communion.

Rome became alarmed and in 1893 Pope Leo XIII wrote: ‘Providentissimus Deus’                   .                                                     Section 17 read:

‘There has arisen … an inept method, dignified by the name of the 'higher criticism,' which pretends to judge of the origin … of each Book from internal evidence alone. It is clear, … that in historical questions, such as the origin and handing down of writings, the witness of history is of primary importance; … internal evidence is seldom of great value except as confirmation. This vaunted ‘higher criticism’ … will not throw on Scripture the light which is sought, or prove any advantage to doctrine, it will only give rise to disagreement and dissention, those sure notes of error, …’

Then in 1902 Leo established the Pontifical Biblical Commission aiming to guide teachers at all levels. Its function was to procure that holy Writ should be preserved ‘not only from any breath of error’, but also ‘from all rash opinions’. ((CCHS 47b)). This defensive aim and ethos expressed itself in a policy of caution, prudence, ‘playing safe’ and suspicion of innovation. the Commission had the task of keeping false theories from being taught in Catholic educational establishments. In 1907 the President of the Commission wrote that its duty was:

‘Providing Catholic teaching with wise and safe norms’, and giving ‘a directive norm’ to students ((CCHS 47f)).

In 1909 Pope Pius X established the ‘Pontifical Biblical Institute’ in Rome as a centre of advanced scriptural studies ((DAS 9)). Pope Leo XIII had established this Commission 1902 and in 1907 Pope Pius X issued ‘Praestantia Sacrae Scripturae’. A slightly amended version of this was published in 1910 and includes the passage:

‘… We now declare and expressly enjoin that all without exception are bound by an obligation of conscience to submit to the decisions of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on matters of doctrine, whether already issued or to be issued hereafter, exactly as to the decrees of the Sacred Congregations approved by the Pope; nor can anyone who by word or writing attacks the said decrees avoid the note both of disobedience and of rashness or be therefore without grave fault’. ((CCHS 47c)).

An explanation and analysis of the work of the Commission, is provided on pages 67-75 of the 1953 Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture.

In 1911, amongst other things, the PBC reaffirmed that the apostle Matthew authored the Gospel to which his name was attached. It said that there was adequate supporting tradition to form the view that it was the first to be written, and had been composed in the native language of Palestine prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. In 1912 it said it was not permissible to depart from the opinion that Matthew, Mark and Luke were composed in that order ((CCHS 50 a-l)). Scholars were allowed to privately disagree with this ruling, but not teach an alternative to the official opinion.

It is noteworthy that the statement endorses the priority of Matthew as Catholic ‘tradition’, while the chronological order of Mark and Luke was treated as an ‘opinion’. While intended to prevent the spread of Markan priority, this statement had the side effect of hindering the research and advocacy of the Clementine tradition/‘opinion’. In doing so, it contributed to the delay in solving of the problem. But it needs to be recognised that the guidance provided in 1911 and 1912, on a wide range of issues concerning the New Testament, provided the urgently needed steadying effect required at that time. Rome’s priority, thinking of the teaching in schools, differed from those of the exegetes. This was expressed in 1943 by Pius XII:

‘For God did not grant the Sacred Books to men to satisfy their curiosity or to provide them with an object of study and research, … [but to] instruct to salvation …’ ((DAS 51)).

In the first half of the 20th century, the Protestant world came to accept that ‘Science’ had shown the early Christian historians to be in error. This is why early Christian history is often neglected today. At the same time, the historical tradition was taught in Catholic establishments as if it was part of unchangeable Church doctrine. In this polarisation of the intellectual atmosphere, most young students chose ‘Science’ rather than ‘History’ and eventually produced a generation of frustrated Catholic biblical students.

In 1933 Pius XI built the St. Jerome monastery in Rome, with a richly endowed library, to specialise in biblical work. Two Catholics, J. Chapman in 1937 and Abbott B.C. Butler in 1951, wrote books successfully challenging Markan priority. But by loyally adhering to the Jerome sequence they were unable to offer a convincing alternative. It is interesting to reflect that if they had been ‘cradle Catholics’ they would almost certainly not have had the knowledge to challenge the Markans. They had learnt literary analysis and the arguments associated with the subject during their early years as Anglican clerics.

The 1943 Encyclical ‘Divino Afflante Spiritu’ by Pius XII accepted that literary analysis, which in 1893 had been used in an arbitrary manner and with preconceived opinions, had now achieved such stability and sureness of principles that it had become an excellent tool for research. ((DAS 23 and 24)). It also called on everyone to continue with the one secure method prescribed by Leo XIII which had stood the test of experience ((DAS 15)).

During the same period, the Radical Protestants Martin Dibelius and Ralph Bultmann led a campaign to ‘demythologise’ the Gospels.  Bultmann (1884-1976) claimed amongst other things that the words of Jesus were not recorded in the Gospels, but were created by preachers speaking in his name.

‘The whole theory of Dibelius and Bultmann is built on the supposition that the early Christians had no biographical interest in the life of Jesus and that a strange transformation of the portrait of Jesus occurred at a time when plenty of eyewitnesses were still alive’. ((CCHS 609d)).

On 11th October 1962 the Second Vatican Council opened with the aim of renewing the Church so as to make her more effective in proclaiming Christ to the modern world.

The Biblical Commission issued a short letter of guidance for the bishops. As they were about to formulate the wording of ‘Dei Verbum’ [The Word of God], it was deliberately non-specific. It became redundant with the passing of the decrees of the Council. Yet some today quote from it as if it is authoritative, while ignoring ‘Dei Verbum’ itself.

In April 1964 the PBC issued, ‘An Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels’. This was a more substantial document and the Commission was still a teaching organ of the Church with binding authority. A few excerpts will indicate its tone:

‘Let the Catholic exegete …diligently employ the new exegetical aids, above all those which the historical method, taken in its widest sense, offers to him … the interpreter may examine what reasonable elements are contained in the `Form-Critical method’ …But … theological principles have often come to be mixed with this method, …some proponents …begin with a false idea of faith, as if it had nothing to do with historical truth-or rather were incompatible with it.

Others deny the historical value and nature of the documents of revelation almost a priori. Finally, others make light of the authority of the apostles as witnesses to Christ, and of their task and influence in the primitive community, extolling rather the creative power of that community. All such views are not only opposed to Catholic doctrine, but are also devoid of scientific basis and alien to the correct principles of historical method’. ((PBCG 925 and 926)).

It quotes John Chrysostom: ‘For the truth of the story is not at all affected by the fact that the Evangelists relate the words and deeds of the Lord in a different order’ ((PBCG 930)).  Later it adds: ‘Those who instruct the Christian people in sacred sermons …are to refrain entirely from proposing vain or insufficiently established novelties. ...those who publish for the faithful …should consider it a sacred duty never to depart in the slightest degree from the common doctrine and tradition of the Church’. ((PBCG 934 and 935)).

The Council was seen as primarily a pastoral council examining ways to converse with the modern world. But ‘Dei Verbum’ was a Doctrinal Constitution reiterating traditional teaching:

 Section 7:  ‘Christ …commissioned the Apostles to preach to all men that Gospel  …This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the Apostles who ... handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, ...The commission was fulfilled, too, by those apostles and apostolic men who ...committed the message of salvation to writing’ ((va)).

Section 18:  ‘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, ... handed onto us in writing: ... the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’. ((va))

Section 18 then refers the reader to Adversus Haereses 3: 11, 8 by Irenaeus, which opens:

‘Matthew also brought out a written Gospel among the Jews in their own   tongue…’.

Section 19:

’Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute consistency held and continues to hold, that; 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 ..’. ((va)).

‘The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, ...  they told us the honest truth about Jesus. … Their intention in writing was that either from their own memory and recollections, ... we might know the “truth”…’. ((va))

When section 19 was being drafted, it was suggested that, ‘believed and continues to believe’, should replace ‘held and continues to hold’, since this was a truth always accepted in the Church through an act of faith. But a revision was not made because the historicity of the gospels was a truth which could be accessed both by faith and reason, and not just by faith alone ((TMH 7)). [The words: ‘held’ and ‘hold’ may be translated as ‘maintained’ and ‘maintain’].

An early draft of another part of section 19 read: ‘they always tell us true and sincere things about Jesus’. But Pope Paul on the 18th October 1965, informed the theological Commission that it did not ‘guarantee the real historicity of the gospels; and on this point, as is obvious, the Holy Father could not approve a formula which would leave the slightest doubt about the historicity of these most holy books’. The Commission proposed the phrase ‘whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms’, and the Council approved this. ((GC 228ff and TMH 28)).

The words in this section, which explain HOW the Gospels were composed, are not inconsistent with the teaching of WHO composed them.

This Doctrinal Constitution as revised was agreed overwhelmingly by the bishops and promulgated on the 18th of November 1965. It is the official teaching of the Catholic Church. The rejected drafts were not advocating Church acceptance of the Markan Priority theory but, if used, could have raised ambiguous doubts concerning the historical character of the Gospels.

The wording was agreed after extensive discussion to find words to convey a precise meaning. This background, means the words as part of a Dogmatic Constitution, should be read with great attention.

Quotations have been taken from the accurate English translation on   Nearly identical wording is to be found in: ‘The Documents of Vatican II’, by Walter Abbott, 1965.

‘Vatican Council II’, edited by Austin Flannery, in 1975 is less accurate.


Version: 8th July 2012