CONTEMPORARY CATHOLIC BIBLICAL SCHOLARSHIP: CERTITUDES OR HYPOTHESES?
Msgr. Michael J. Wrenn January 8, 1988
One of the axioms of contemporary Biblical scholarship is that the
exegesis of a text depends on its dating. The question of dating truly
conditions our understanding of the Gospels: at least insofar as what is
essential to the text is concerned, witnesses were still very numerous when
they were being composed and their statements could be verified. They were
not transmitting their imaginings but rather their testimonies. In the
words of the Prologue of the Gospel of St. Luke: "Many have undertaken to
compile a narrative of the events which have been fulfilled in our midst
*precisely as these events were transmitted to us* by the original
eyewitnesses and servants of the word. I, too, have carefully placed [or
been carefully informed by these witnesses] the whole sequence of events
from the beginning and I have decided to set it in writing to you,
Theophilus, so that Your Excellency may see how reliable the instruction was
that you received."
Scholarly introductions to the New Testament demonstrate that a
consensus has been established among most Catholic scholars regarding the
dates of the composition of the Gospels. For example, the majority of
scholars place the composition of the Fourth Gospel toward the end of the
first century and place the Gospel of Matthew around 85. They generally
place the Apocalypse [Revelations] and the Acts of the Apostles at the end
of the first century as well.
But in 1976 a bomb went off in scholarly circles with the
publication of the late Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson's "Redating the
New Testament." Robinson's book is not only scholarly, but it is extremely
amusing. He tells us that for a long time, that is, up until the
respectable age which he has attained, he believed everything which he had
been taught in the field of historical-critical exegesis, everything which
the German school propounded. And one day some years ago he asked himself a
simple question, one of those which are at the heart of major scientific
breakthroughs: "On what are the theses of the critical school, regardless of
the dating of the composition of the Gospels *SCIENTIFICALLY* based?" To
this question, posed in the cocktail hour of his life, Robinson was unable
to secure a response. Being the good English Empiricist that he was, he set
about, in a scientific way, to look again at the entire matter of the dating
of the books of the New Testament.
He starts with a very simple, evident, and startling fact. No
text in any book of the New Testament proves that a particular author had
been aware of that most startling event in the history of Judaism during the
first century of the Christian era - namely, the Taking of Jerusalem and its
destruction by the Emperor Titus in the year 70 A.D. In the entire New
Testament, there is not one word of commentary on this catastrophic event,
even when occasion would have seemed to present an opportunity for it, or
even tow arrant it, as for example with respect to Jesus' prophecies, which
forecast the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. If the Greek texts
which report these prophecies, which could be read in Matthew, Mark or Luke,
had been written *after* the destruction of Jerusalem, they would have been
followed by comments stressing that history had verified these prophecies.
The Gospel of Matthew is *constantly* concerned to show or to
emphasize that a particular ancient prophecy is verified by the events.
This would have been a golden opportunity to add a comment which would have
validated the sayings of Our Lord. Everything, however, takes place as if
the Four Gospels had been redacted as we read them today in Greek AT A TIME
WHEN THE TEMPLE WAS STILL STANDING. [Empasis by editor].
Claude Tresmontant, a distinguished scholar at the Sorbonne, sets
forth his own views not only on the language but also the dating of the New
Testament, and provides an argument from archaeology to help confirm the
thesis of Robinson. He observes, in his recently published work "The Hebrew
Christ," that almost all scholars tell us that the Fourth Gospel was
redacted around the end of the first century. Yet we read in John 5:2 that
"there IS (in Greek, 'estin') at Jerusalem, at the Sheep Gate, a pool named
in Hebrew 'Bethzatha.' It has five porticoes." [Note once again the use of
the *present* tense]. How do you conclude that around the end of the first
century of our era an author would have written "there IS at Jerusalem a
pool" when Jerusalem would have been destroyed some 25 or 30 years before,
reduced to a heap of stones with a Roman encampment, at the very time,
positioned on top of it? If one referred to a monument which existed at
Hiroshima before the destruction of 1945 and which had not been
reconstructed, one would not say there IS, but there WAS. Moreover, during
this century, there were actually *found* the remains or ruins of this pool
with five porticoes. The author wrote in the present indicative [mood]
BECAUSE THE POOL EXISTED WHEN HE WROTE. The Gospel of Matthew was written,
therefore, before 70 A.D.
Catholic exegetes generally think that the author of the Fourth
Gospel is John, the son of Zebedee, the Galilean. If he is the author of
the "Fourth Gospel" and if he committed it to writing around the year 95,
then that would make him about 95 years of age. How psychologically
improbable that John would have waited 65 years to commit to writing the
account of the events of which he had been an eyewitness. We have only to
re-read the account of the cure of the man born blind from birth, in Chapter
9, with the dialogues which are found there. We see quite well that these
scenes have been set down immediately, fresh, warm in his memory with
amusing details of tremendous precision. These are not the recollections of
a man 95 years of age. These are notes which were set down as they
Robinson concludes his scholarly work with analysis regarding the
datings which are quite different from those which have commonly been taught
up until now. He believes the Fourth Gospel was composed before 70 - in the
main, between 40 and 60. He also places the Apocalypse before 70.
Claude Tresmontant, in his pioneering work, "The Hebrew Christ"
which is soon to appear in English, basing himself on arguments distinct
from those of Robinson, situates the GREEK translation of the original
Hebrew of the Fourth Gospel around the years 36-40 and therefore prior to
the dates proposed by Robinson. He situates the original Hebrew of the
Fourth Gospel before its translation into Greek and proposes reasons for
believing that in its present form, in GREEK, the Gospel of Matthew had been
composed before the end of the 40s. But the original Hebrew or Aramaic is
of course before this time. Now, hold on to your seats! What Tresmontant
is in effect saying is that the Gospels as we have them are really
translations - which are actually not that late - of much earlier original
compositions in Hebrew or Aramaic and therefore much closer to the
'ipsissima verba Christi.'
Tresmontant is not alone. Until his unexpected death in October
of last year, the noted scholar of the Dead Sea scrolls and the world's most
renowned expert on the "Our Father," Father Jean Carmignac of Paris, whose
warmth, kindness and priestly friendship I will cherish until the day I die,
had for the last 20 years been working on the question of the language and
dating of the Gospels. Fortunately a number of his friends had prevailed
upon him to write a popular description of his theories, which he did three
years ago. I was privileged to translate this work, which is entitled "The
Birth of the Synoptic Gospels."
Father Carmignac was a philologist, an exceptionally competent
expert in Biblical Hebrew. He knew well the ravages that a particular type
of contemporary exegesis was producing among priests and faithful. For, if
the Gospels were later compositions, simply witnesses of the growing faith
of the earliest Christian communities, Bultmann was correct and so was
Loisy. Yes, indeed, as Father Carmignac once observed to me, if the Jesus
of History is practically unattainable, it is the Christ of Faith who very
quickly is rejected!
One day some 20 years ago, Father Carmignac started to translate
the rather inelegant and ear-grating Greek of St. Mark's Gospel into Hebrew.
To his astonishment, he did not encounter any real problems in retroversing
into Hebrew. As he relates, a certitude began to form within him: "I was
convinced that the Greek text of Mark could not have been redacted directly
in Greek and that it was in reality only the Greek translation of an
original Hebrew.... The Hebrew-Greek translation had transposed word for
word and had even preserved in Greek the order of the words preferred by
Hebrew grammar." Carmignac continues: "As my translation gradually took
shape, my conviction was reinforced: even a Semite having learned Greek
later on in life would not have permitted the stamp of his mother tongue to
come through; he would have, from time to time at least, made use of the
expression current in Greek. But no. We have here the literal, carbon copy
or transparency of a translator attempting to respect, to the greatest
extent possible, the Hebrew text which he had in front of him."
In order to bolster further his position, Carmignac sifted out
into nine categories the hundreds of Semitisms in the Gospels: Semitisms of
borrowing, of imitation, of thought, of vocabulary, of syntax, of style, of
composition, of translation, and of transmission. (An example of a Semitism
of transmission would be that of a copyist's mistake as a result of a
similarity in Hebrew between consonants.)
Carmignac gives a number of demonstrations of Hebrew 'play on
words' in the text. What follows is a quote in which he attempts to give us
an example of play on words which Hebrew had a great preference for
employing, taking great pleasure in making reference to similar sounds,
thereby facilitating the task of memorization.
"The Benedictus, reproduced in Luke 1:68-79, is composed
of three strophes, each having seven stichs; the first begins with
the Biblical and Qumranian formula, 'Blessed (be) the Lord the God
of Israel'; the third begins, as frequently is the case at Qumran,
with a personal pronoun: 'And you, child'; the second has in its
first stich: 'to show mercy to our fathers,' in which the
expression 'to show mercy' translated the verb 'hanan', which is
the root of 'Yohanan' (=John); then follows the second stick, 'and
he remembers his holy covenant,' in which 'he remembers'
translates the verb 'zakar,' which is the root of 'Zakaryah'
(=Zachary); then the third stich; 'the oath which he swore to our
father Abraham,' uses, in two different forms, the root 'shaba'
(to swear, or to take an oath), which is the root of 'Elishabaat'
(=Elizabeth). Is it by chance that the second strophe of this
poem begins by a triple allusion to the names of the three
protagonists: John, Zachary, Elizabeth? But this allusion exists
only in Hebrew, and the Greek or English translation does not
Moreover, Father Carmignac maintains that the destruction of
Palestine by the Romans in the year 70 prevents us from supposing that such
documents as the Gospels could possibly have been produced *after* the
dispersion of the community for which they were originally intended.
Carmignac also discovered that since the 15th century the same 80
retroversions of the Gospels had been made into Hebrew by a number of
scholars in different parts of the world.
The little treatise "The Birth of the Synoptic Gospels" which I
was honoured to translate is an introduction to his discovery and the five
major works of retroversion which he managed to publish before his
unexpected death. He once observed to me his conviction that by the year
2000 scriptural scholarship will start with the Hebrew or Aramaic rather
than the Greek. "Sooner or later, specialists will be hit right between the
eyes and see themselves like me staring directly at the very backdrop of the
What follows are the provisional results of his 20 years of
research on the formation of the Synoptic Gospels:
1. It is *certain* that Mark, Matthew, and the
documents used by Luke were redacted in a Semitic language.
2. It is *probable* that this Semitic language is
Hebrew, rather than Aramaic.
3. It is *sufficiently probable* that our Second Gospel
was composed in a Semitic language by St. Peter the Apostle.
4. It is *possible* that St. Matthew, the Apostle,
redacted the COLLECTIONS of discourses, or that he redacted the
COMMON SOURCE utilized by our First and Third Gospels.
5. Utilizing internal evidence in the Epistles of St.
Paul, Father Carmignac next presents a very interesting and novel
*hypothesis* regarding the dating of the Gospels.
In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul speaks in 8:18
of a person whom he describes thus: "the brother whom all the Churches
praise for his preaching of the Gospel." If it is a question of the
preaching of the Gospels, this would not be a distinctive designation, for
it would apply to all the collaborators of St. Paul. In order that the
Gospel be a motive for special recognition throughout alll the Churches and
characterize one brother from all of the others, isn't it because this
brother, alone of all the others, is the author of a Gospel? Thus it would
have been "spread throughout all the Churches." Many commentators have
understood this allusion of St. Paul in this way, beginning with Origen
(cited by Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, Book 6, Chapter 25,
This text of St. Paul is unfortunately not explicit enough to
warrant being considered a final argument, but it constitutes, at least, an
indication which is worth not forgetting.
6. Even if the indication of the Second Epistle to the
Corinthians (which would not be viewed as scientific) is taken
into account, it is beyond the limit of probability to situate the
redaction of Luke in Greek later than the years 58-60; it is
beyond the limits of probability to place the final redaction in a
Semitic language of our First Gospel much later than Luke; it is
beyond the limits of probability to place the redaction in a
Semitic language of our Second Gospel much later than around the
year 50, and equally beyond the limits of probability if account
is taken of the indication of the Second Epistle to the
Corinthians (which would be viewed as more scientific), to situate
the redaction of Luke in Greek later than the years 50-53; it is
beyond the limits of probability to situate the definitive
redaction in a Semitic language of our First Gospel much later
than Luke; it is beyond the limits of probability to situate the
redaction in a Semitic language of our Second Gospel much later
than around the years 42-45.
7. It is *probable* that the Semitic Gospel of Peter
was translated into Greek, perhaps with some adaptations, by Mark,
in Rome, at the latest around the year 63. It is our Second
Gospel which has preserved the name of its translator, instead of
As for external evidence, Father Carmignac refers to the Witness
of Papias. Toward the middle of the reign of Trajan (98-117), Papias
composed a treatise of five books entitled "Exegeses (or Explanations) of
the Words of the Lord." We no longer possess anything except a few
fragments of this work - so valuable because of its antiquity. These
fragments are preserved in the "History of the Church" written by Eusebius.
What follows are two texts relative to Mark, which are taken directly from
Eusebius and which, for the sake of convenience, we will call "Text A" and
"Text B." The first, Text A, is taken from Book 2, which covers the
earliest Christian history from the Ascension to the end of Nero's reign,
from 30 to 68 A.D. In Chapter 14, Eusebius recounts how Peter came to Rome
to preach the good news during the reign of Claudius (41-54) and there
confronted Simon the Magician. The chapter has as its title, "The Gospel
According to Mark."
"So brightly shone the light of piety in the minds of Peter's
hearers that, not satisfied with a single hearing or with the real
teaching of the divine message, they resorted to appeals of every
kind to induce Mark, whose Gospel has come down to us, as he was a
follower of Peter, to leave them in writing a summary of the
teachings which Peter had transmitted to them orally, nor did they
cease until they had persuaded him and thus became responsible for
the writing of what is known as the Gospel according to Mark."
What follows is the second fragment of Papias contained in the
History of the Church by Eusebius - what we have referred to as Text B.
Papias is quoted as saying:
"And this is what [John] the Presbyter used to say:
'Mark, who had been with Peter's interpreter, wrote down
*carefully, but not always in order*, all the things which he
remembered to have been *said* or *done* by the Lord."
For [here Papias is again speaking] Mark did not hear
the Lord, nor did he accompany him, but later, as I said, he
accompanied Peter. Peter used to give his instructions according
to needs [adapt his teaching to the occasion], but without
making a systematic arrangement of the Lord's sayings, so that
Mark, having written down these things as he recalled them, made
no mistake; he had actually one sole concern; to omit nothing that
he had heard and to falsify nothing."
That is what Papias reports regarding Mark (History of the
church," Book 3, Chapter 39, 14-50).
Moreover, Eusebius tells us:
"It is said that, on learning by revelation from the
Spirit what had happened, the Apostle [Peter] was delighted at
their zeal and enthusiasm [referring to the fact that Peter's
hearers had induced Mark to set down in writing a summary of
teachings which Peter had transmitted to them orally, mentioned in
Text A] and that he [Peter] authorized the reading of the book in
the assemblies. Clement of Alexandria reports this
information in "Outlines," Book 6, and the Bishop of Hieropolis,
Papias, confirms this by his own testimony." [History of the
"We have, therefore, in this instance, in the witness of
Papias, a testimony going back to the very beginning of the
Second Century, which attests that Mark had written before
Peter's death; it is known that the apostle [Peter] was martyred
during the persecution of Nero which followed shortly after the
burning of Rome in 64 A.D."
Father Carmignac also studied the writings of Origen, Tertullian,
Irenaeus, Clement, and shows that there is no need to break with the
earliest tradition, and to call into question the apostolic authenticity of
Thanks to the efforts of Father Carmignac, a further new
indication of the antiquity of the Gospels is in the process of becoming
established. Prior to the year 50, Christians from Judaic circles were
only able to express the message of Jesus Christ in Aramaic or Hebrew,
and it is this primitive message which constitutes the basis for the gospel
Time does not allow us to go into other considerations which
bear upon the dating of the gospel texts and therefore upon their
historical accuracy. Suffice it to say that there is renewed interest
in the study of oral tradition as this would have affected the composition
of the Gospels.
Father Jousse, in 1925, published an astonishing work, "Oral
Rhythmic and Memory-Building Techniques," by which even Loisy would become
interested in Jousse's thesis, whereby the oral tradition of a great
deal of the gospel becomes a very plausible and probably well-established
Research shows that, as a pedagogical method, learning by heart
plays a key role in the three Jewish institutions of popular education: the
family, the synagogue, and the elementary school. Chanting or
'cantillation' and memory-building devices and drills were part of this
'culture of memory.' In his study of the oral style of the Gospels, Jousse
shed light on the rhythmic processes employed by Jesus and preserved by the
earliest Christian recitators!
In 1957, at the Oxford Congress on the Four Gospels, the
eminent Swedish specialist in the New Testament, H. Riesenfeld,
maintained that not only was the Gospel tradition prior to the Easter
event - therefore going back to Jesus Himself -but that:
"In the Gospels we are shown very clearly that
Jesus was a teacher, especially in His relation to His disciples.
This means more than His mere preaching in their presence. He
gave them instructions, and in this we are reminded of the
methods of the Jewish rabbi, and that implies that Jesus made
His disciples, and above all the Twelve, learn, *and
furthermore, that He made them learn by heart*" ["The Gospel
Tradition," p. 22].
In the light of a number of new hypotheses set forth in
the works of Carmignac, Tresmontant and Bishop John A.T. Robinson, allow me
to raise the following questions, which, even if these authors had not been
cited, most people in a state of doubt would answer in the negative.
1. Is it scientifically *proven* that the Gospels
were written quite late, toward the end of the first century and
after the years 66-70? No!
2. Is it *proven* that a lengthy (from 40-60
years) oral transmission of the essential elements of the Gospel
needed to take place before they were committed to writing? No!
3. With respect to the two previous assertions, is it
*proven* that a major problem would exist regarding the
accuracy of the deeds and words of the Lord Jesus Christ because of
oral tradition? No!
4. Is it *proven* that, if the Gospels had been
transmitted only orally, there would have been a damage to the
5. Is it *proven* that Christian communities during
the years between 70 and 90 A.D. altered, in the light of their own
particular problems some of the words of Christ which had been
handed down in order to have Christ say things capable of
justifying the practices of these communities? No!
6. Is it *proven* that the Gospel According to John was
the last to be written because it is the most spiritual and
apparently the most finely- wrought? No!
In the light of this demand for certain proofs, isn't it
also wise and scientific to propose other hypotheses dependent upon a no
less attentive reading and based upon the obvious Hebrew substratum of our
For example, why wouldn't the majority of passages in our Gospels
have been written, at least in bits and pieces if not all their essential
elements, a short time after - if not even during - the earthly life of
Furthermore, since the apostles began to preach the Good News of
Jesus when the Holy Spirit came upon them on the Day of Pentecost, why
would they be prohibited from committing to writing the essential elements
of their preaching over a period of several decades?
Why would their hearers have formally abstained from taking
notes during these years? And why, all of a sudden, would this activity
of committing to writing have been set in motion simultaneously in very
different places, but according to very similar styles?
Why would there not have been a simultaneity between the oral
transmission (especially preaching) and the writing down of a certain
number of accounts, and words, as well as the major narratives such as the
Passion and Resurrection - and this being done in very Jewish categories
in the cultural presence of the Sacred Books of the Old Testament, in the
everyday language of Hebrew and Aramaic?
Thus, we can also say that between the years 30 and 65, there was
already a certain form of sporadic persecution coming from Jewish circles,
though this does not mean that there was already a complete break between
the synagogue and the "New Way." This is more in line with the position of
the Gospels having been written *before* the year 60 - the Roman
persecution beginning in full force in the year 64. The writings of the
New Testament rarely point the finger at the Romans, but always do so
against the adherents of the Mosaic religion.
Given the hypothesis of a lengthy, purely oral, transmission
before finally being written down after the seventies, we are still
permitted to present the hypothesis of an oral transmission running
alongside the redaction in Hebrew of partial texts during the thirties.
Gradually, these texts would be employed as the basic ingredients at the
very center of the redaction of each Gospel, essentially completed before
the years 60 to 65. The entire corpus would have been translated into
Greek in order to respond to the needs of new Christians coming from the
Greek and Roman worlds.
In the light of these various hypotheses, the scientific test
or control must examine which functions the best and which avoids
the greatest number of objections.
It is not anti-scientific to think that the hypothesis of the
lengthy oral transmission lacks genuine proofs and is fraught with many
difficulties. It is not anti-scientific to claim that the hypotheses of a
short oral transmission and a rapid writing down of the accounts or words
of Jesus, shortly after the events, find solid foundations through an
examination of the Greek text and its retroversion into Hebrew.
In a recently published work entitled "Un Homme Nomme
Salut," Madame Jacqueline Genot-Bismuth, who occupies the Chair of
Ancient and Medieval Judaism at the Sorbonne, ably demonstrates that in
the scientific discipline which is critical exegesis, certain major
errors have been taught for generations, and have totally falsified our
understanding of Christian origins. Since the beginning of the 19th
century, for example, it was commonly taught that the Gospel of John
was a later composition under Hellenistic, Gnostic or Iranian influence.
Madame Genot-Bismuth, through her exceptional knowledge of the most
ancient rabbinic literature, makes a solid case for the Gospel of John's
being a *script*, the translation into Greek of notes taken in Hebrew of
John who was a Kohen (a priest).
Utilizing a wealth of details, she demonstrates that the Gospel of
John is a contemporary collection of the words and deeds of Rabbi
Yeshua. Where the German exegetes of the nineteenth century saw only
fiction and mythology, she re-discovers history!
A profound disregard for the Judean ethnic milieu or
environment explains the length of time that these errors have been in
vogue. This disregard is due to an ingrained attitude of despisal and
detestation of Judaism, which are constants in German philosophy, the
mistress of German critical exegesis accepted by the majority of exegetes
since Renan and Loisy. The book of Madame Genot-Bismuth will constitute a
revolution regarding our knowledge of Christian beginnings.
There is a new Apologetic making its appearance in
Catholic Biblical circles. Apologetics used to be a defense of Church
doctrine aganst the Protestants, who used historical-critical exegesis
as a weapon against the Church. That's the *old* apologetics. The new
apologetics is the defense of Catholic historical-critical exegetes, who
learn their methodology from Protestants, against attacks by Catholics.
In France, this apologetics is reflected in the work of Father
Grelot entitled "The Gospels in Apostolic Tradition: Reflections on a
Certain Hebrew Christ."
Besides being an apologetical defense against Tresmontant's
thesis, it also seeks to respond to Father Carmignac and to Father Rene
Laurentin's "The Truth of Christmas Beyond the Myths: The Gospels of the
Infancy of Christ." English-language examples of this new apologetics are
Jerome Murphy- O'Connor's "Again Under Attack." "The Bible Today," March
1984; "Danger Also From the Left," Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, S.J. and Raymond E.
Brown. "The Bible Today," May 1985; and "Biblical Exegesis and Church
Doctrine" by Raymond E. Brown, Paulist Press, 1985. In this last-named
work, Brown continues the fiercely polemical attack on Father
Laurentin which he launched on September 29, 1984, at the Catholic
University of America. The rapidity with which this body of apologetic
writing was formed and the eminence of the historical-critical exegetes
called upon to make the defense indicates that defense is a matter of
considerable urgency in the historical-critical exegetical camp.
Some sort of crisis seems to be at hand for historical-critical
exegesis as this methodology is being practiced in the Catholic
Church. Might some of the apologetic defenses by the Catholic
historical-critical exegetes just mentioned be motivated, not by purely
scientific motives, but rather by that feeling of dread and worry that must
come into the minds of theoreticians when they see their own theories and
hypotheses *seriously* and *scientifically* threatened?
But there are signs of hope. Recently, a mutually
vituperative and polemical exchange between Father Grelot and Mr. Pierre
Debray in a French Catholic weekly has given way to a reconciliation of
views between these two gentlemen who were in agreement that, yes, this
Catholic layman's concern about the hypotheses being set forth as
scientific facts were indeed something that could cause - and had caused -
tremendous difficulty in France and elsewhere. In short, both of these
men agreed that "HYPOTHESES SHOULD NOT BE PRESENTED AS CERTITUDES."
(Reprinted with permission)
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