Fact and Meaning Are Inseparable in Christianity

Author: Colin Hemer

Fact and Meaning Are Inseparable in Christianity

One of the strongest critiques of O'Callaghan's identification of 7Q5 as from the Gospel of Mark came from the late Colin J. Hemer , an Anglican expert in exegesis and archaeology.

Hemer some years ago published an article in the German scholarly journal in which he argued that 7Q5 could contain a passage written by Thucydides (a Greek historian who lived in Athens in the period from 460 to 400 B.C.). He wrote: "Dr. J. O'Callaghan has recently demonstrated some interesting coincidences between the 7Q Greek fragments and New Testament texts. Whether these coincidences amount to decisive evidence for the identifications he proposes is a different matter. On the current showing they must all be held suspect.

"The group of 19 associated fragments may be considered under three heads: (a) the four longer pieces (7Q1, 2, 3, 19), all sufficiently extensive to permit uncontroversial placing. None of these have been assigned to the New Testament: two are Septuagintal, two unidentified. (b) Those with more than two lines containing acceptably legible letters (7Q4, 5, 8). Here O'Callaghan shows impressive coincidences, but in each case his hypothesis must presuppose the existence of a textual error or variant. (c) Two-line fragments, so brief that multiple alternative identifications become feasible. I have endeavored to show elsewhere that the chances of coincidence are too high for any solution to be regarded as exclusive.

"There is, I think, no case where the suggestion offered seems both complete and exclusive. If any one part of the hypothesis were really established, the fragments might indeed corroborate each other by their association. But this condition is not fulfilled. Indeed, the pattern is otherwise: the largest pieces lend their weight to the contrary conclusion.

"There are three evident objections to this solution: (a) it depends on the assumption of a variant which omits a phrase... ; (b) it depends on the assumption that the only complete letter preserved of [one Greek word] is a spelling error of initial "d" for "t"; (c) it postulates in at least two places unlikely readings of doubtful letters (to judge from the published notes and facsimiles).

"Scribal errors and unexpected textual variants may of course occur in a primitive document, but a hypothesis which depends on them to turn a partial coincidence into a complete one is precarious. The present case bears more impressive testimony to the ingenuity of the scholar than to the correctness of his solution. Diverse, while yet plausible, partial reconstructions may be comparatively easy to find if we allow license to assume any convenient error.

"The purpose of this note is to illustrate this point with just such a partial coincidence, which seems to compare not too unfavorably with those of O'Callaghan. If a letter group suggests a familiar name like it may prove too easy to build a hypothesis round the name. The group '' might occur in a variety of contexts. A suitable recurring name is or A few minutes with a text of Thucydides, a manifestly implausible source for 7Q5, revealed a place where something promising might be produced with a little textual manipulation."

He then proceeded to show how the 7Q5 fragment could be read as a text from Thucydides.

The Debate Continues

How certain is the dating of the 7Q5 fragment to the period prior to 50 A.D.? Professor Vittorio Fusco , a lecturer in the faculty of New Testament Theology at an southern Italian university, has written several articles arguing that O'Callaghan's thesis is fragile. One lengthy piece appeared in the Italian Catholic journal in 1993. There, Fusco wrote: "As for the Qumran fragment 7Q5, identified with Mark 6:52... it is not explained to the readers that the date of 50 A.D. has been proposed on the grounds of the style of writing, characteristic of the period between 50 B.C. and 50 A.D., even though, as O'Callaghan himself has stated, that style of writing was used up until the end of the century."

This unleashed the wrath of the Catholic magazine, <30 Giorni. >In an article entitled "" ("Not After 50 A.D.") in its July-August 1994 issue, Fusco's arguments were branded "nonsense." In the article, O'Callaghan was quoted as saying, "I really don't know where Fusco got his dates. One thing is sure: certainly not from my articles!"

When Fusco then produced passages from O'Callaghan's articles in and in the where O'Callaghan speaks of the "ornate style" being used until the end of the century, O'Callaghan apologized.

"My aim is not to see O'Callaghan's thesis stand or fall, or to date the Gospel of Mark a few decades earlier or later, but simply to place in context the problem of the historicity of the Gospels,"fusco then said. "Even if the date of 50 A.D. were confirmed, the problems would essentially remain the same. And those who suggest that the historical value of the Gospels depends on their early dating are certainly not rendering a positive service."

Many doubts have also been raised by Father Gianfranco Ravasi , a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. "O'Callaghan's thesis is fascinating," Ravasi said in an interview published in on June 1, 1991. "Nevertheless, his proofs seem insufficient to allow a definite 'yes' or 'no.' Personally I tend toward 'no.'

"The Qumran fragment does not contain whole words, only letters, and O'Callaghan resorts to putting several words of the Marcan text in parentheses in order to make the passage match. The doubts about his thesis reflect the caution of exegetes toward paleographic research.

"As for Catholic exegetes have employed this method since Vatican II. The method grew out of an effort to show the superiority of the Christ of faith to the Jesus of history, to find a balance between two extremes: a radical historicism and gnosticism. The main objective of our work is to save Jesus Christ after the Easter event: the Gospels, which are not historical books, are to be read with the principle of (message). Therefore, even if we were to prove beyond a doubt that the Gospel of Mark was composed in 40 A.D., it would be of marginal importance and the kerygmatic principle would remain the same.

"Certainly, any new discovery alarms the dominant system. But the objections to O'Callaghan's discoveries derive primarily from the weaknesses of O'Callaghan's arguments. In the same way, Carmignac's theses have not convinced me, not to mention those of Tresmontant [Carmignac and Tresmontant have argued Matthew was originally written in Aramaic and that the Greek version we have is a translation of that early original]. In short, there has to be stronger evidence."

Significantly, among O'Callaghan's supporters is Father Albert Vanhoye , Secretary of the Biblical Pontificate Commission.

"I have followed the debate as a non-specialist, but O'Callaghan's arguments seem plausible to me," Vanhoye said. "The paragraph containing the section change is rather uncommon in ancient manuscripts as, for example, in the Old Testament. Therefore, the probability that the text if from Mark increases decisively.

"The title of 's article is imprecise: it gives the impression that Mark wrote the text as if he were a reporter taking notes. In reality, his Gospel is the fruit of evangelical catechesis. Saint Irenaeus, by the way, writes that Mark was in contact with Peter in Rome and it is probable that the text was written in Rome.

"Unfortunately, whenever someone discovers sources that prove historically the truths of the faith, there is an outcry. On the other hand, whenever research suggests the contrary, the results are received with great favor.

"O'Callaghan has been subjected to tremendous criticism. His discoveries greatly upset many biblicists: it had been taken for granted that 40 years had passed from the time of the death of Christ to the writing of the Gospel of Mark. To discover instead that less than 20 years had divided the two events - that threatened to undermine the whole of New Testament exegesis.

"In any event, it is of extreme importance that the question be raised again, and that there be discussion in the Church on the matter."

Father Ignace de la Potterie , Professor Emeritus of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, also supports O'Callaghan's theory. "I'm glad the fragment studied by Father O'Callaghan is again being discussed," de la Potterie said. "The implications of the discovery are so great that it merits renewed interest. The Enlightenment philosopher Gotthold Lessing once said 'an insuperable abyss separates us from the origins of Christianity.' The new date attributed to the Gospel of Mark, if verified, would help this great abyss.

"If he is right, the modern distinction between the Christ of Faith and the Jesus of history would be put into question. And we must keep in mind that it the Gospel of Mark which most exalts the divinity of Christ with its miraculous power.

"Modern exegesis has tended to separate the historical fact from its meaning. Facts became increasingly secondary, almost mythological, and only the spiritual meaning remained. But fact and meaning are inseparable in Christianity."

This article was taken from "Inside the Vatican."

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