Dei Verbum and the Synoptic Gospels
by Bernard Orchard, O.S.B.
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 and in Rome of an "Instruction on The Historical
Truth of the Gospels" issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission
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
"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. ,
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,"
(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
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,
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
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
Notably Pere 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
(London) edited by Monsignor J. M. T. Barton.
But neither this work nor Butler's later work entitled (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 (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.
, Part II passim [Mercer U.P., Macon,
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 , which was to have special chapters on the
The Commission's guidelines, entitled , 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
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 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 poet-resurrection preaching of the apostles (S.8).
3. The composition of the Gospels by the inspired Evangelists
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
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
, 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
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. 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 (),
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  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
"(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" (, edited by Austin
Flannery, O.P., 1988 revised edition, Dominican Publications,
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 acknowledgment 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 is to be clearly seen in the
sentences that follow the words "now enjoyed." For
forsakes the word "apostles" in favour of "the sacred authors"
() for the rest of its S.19, which reads as
"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 () ....
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 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 ().
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
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,
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
certainly encouraged the use of historical critical
methods according to Catholic norms, cf. J. A. Fitzmyer, (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 22-23,
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 , there
appeared in 1989 an article by a famous French scholar, Father
Refoule, on the subject of the ecumenical French Bible (the TOB,
). 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 (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 Refoule 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 avoided the issue of apostolicity.
Furthermore, Father Refoule'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 (1989). In the Introduction to his commentary
on the Gospel of Matthew, Father Benedict T. Viviano, O.P.,
"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
( 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 .
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 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 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
1. Modern exegesis finds it exceedingly difficult honestly to
comply with 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 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 words of Peter, who
continues to witness after his demise by means of this Gospel (cf.
(Mercer U.P., Macon, Georgia, 1987),
129, n. 9.
In particular, the question of the relationship between
historicity and apostolicity will have to be reexamined because
the discussion of their relationship was temporarily suspended
with the acquiescence of 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
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-
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 ,
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., (Cambridge, 1951).
Chapman, J., , ed. J. M. T. Barton
Dungan, D. L.,
(Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1971).
Dungan, D. L., ea., (Peelers, Leuven, 1990).
Edmundsen, G., (London,
Farmer, W. R.,
(Macmillan, London, 1964; reprinted 1976).
Farmer, W. R., (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1982).
Farmer, W. R., (Macon, Georgia, 1983).
Harnack, A., (E. T., London, 1911).
Hemer, C. J. (J. C. B. Mohr, Tubingen,1989).
Kuerzinger, J., (Regensburg, 1983).
Longstaff, T. R. W., , SBL Dissertation Series (Scholars Press,
Missoula, Montana, 1977).
Mann, C. S., , Anchor Bible 27 (Doubleday & Co., New York,
Massaux, E., (Louvain, 1950).
Meyer, B. F., (London, 1979).
Orchard, J. B., (Koinonia Press, Ealing
Orhard, J. B., (Mercer
U. P., Macon, Georgia, 1982).
Orchard, J. B., (T. & T.
Clark, Edinburgh, 1983).
Orchard, J. B. (with H. Riley),
(Mercer U.B, Macon, Georgia, 1987).
Orchard, J. B., (and T. R. W. Longstaff), eds., F.F. (Cambridge, 1979).
Riley, H., (Mercer U. P:, Macon, Georgia,
Robinson, John A. T., (London, 1975).
Sanders, E. P., (Cambridge,
Shuler, P., (Fortress Press,
(Mercer U. P., Macon, Georgia; T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1982).
Stuhlmacher, P., ed.
Taylor, R. O. P., (Oxford, 1946).
Tuckett, C. M.,
Turner, E. G., (Revised Edition,
Walker, Wm. O., Jr., ea.,
(Trinity U. Et, 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,
Orchard, J. B., "The Formation of the Synoptic Gospels," The
Downside Review (January 1988).
Orchard, J. B., "The Solution of the Synoptic Problem," Scripture
Bulletin XVIII, 1 (Winter 1987).
Orchard, J. B., "Thessalonians and the Synoptic Gospels," Biblica
(1938), pp. 1-19.
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 doctrine 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, in tellexerunt.
8. Apostoli imprimis mortem et resurrectionem Domini annuntiabant,
Iesu testimonium reddentes, Eiusque vitam et verba fideliter
exponebant, a diunctorum 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 Iesus 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 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 tra diderunt, fidei fundamentum,
quadriforme nempe Evangelium, secundum Matthaeum, Marcum, Lucam et
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 sincere de Iesu nobiscum communicarent. Illa enim
intentione scripserunt, sive ex sue 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).
Dom Bernard Orchard, O.S.B., is a Benedictine monk at Ealing
Abbey, England. He was the general editor of the Catholic
Commentary on Holy Scripture (1953), served as chairman of the
editorial committee for the (1969), and is the author, with Harold Riley, of (1987) and of other books on Scripture.
His most recent book is a life of Christ.
This article was taken from the May 1996 issue of "This Rock,"
published by Catholic Answers, P.O. Box 17490, San Diego, CA
92177, (619) 541-1131, $24.00 per year.