Gospel Debate

Author: Antonio Gaspari

Gospels Gospel Debate by Antonio Gaspari

Pandemonium in Venice! On the 900th anniversary of the dedication of St. Mark's Basilica, during a scholarly symposium on the Gospel of Mark, exegetes, papyrologists, New Testament scholars and assorted interested Catholics nearly came to blows over the "historicity" of the Gospels, blasting one another for (on the one hand) alleged "biblical fundamentalism" and "anti-conciliar attitudes" and (on the other) "ultra-liberal interpretations" and "New Age attitudes."

What's it all about? The story begins with a fragment of papyrus (the reed-based paper of the ancient world) about the size of a postage stamp. In the world of biblical studies, this fragment has become the center of furious controversy because it threatens to make and un-make decades of scholarly biblical research.

The St. Mark Conference, convened in Venice on May 30, brought together leading biblical scholars from around the world. At the center of attention: Spanish Jesuit Father Jose O' Callaghan , who claims to have identified the controversial fragment as a piece of the Gospel of Mark, and German papyrologist Carsten Peter Thiede , who thinks O'Callaghan is right.

The following is a reconstruction of the phenomenon and debate.

The Discovery

In 1972, Father O'Callaghan, then a respected young lecturer at the Pontifical Bible Institute - the Rector at the time was the present cardinal archbishop of Milan, Carlo Maria Martini - made a startling claim. He argued in an article in the Institute's research journal, that a miniscule fragment of text found in 1947 in one of the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea in the Holy Land - the 5th fragment taken from Cave 7 (thus its shorthand identification as "Fragment 7Q5") - contained a text from the Gospel of St. Mark, and that the handwriting dated from between 50 B.C. and 50 A.D.

The identification was a since the fragment contains a mere 11 letters of the Greek alphabet and not a single complete word.

But O'Callaghan, who is famous for having made a number of clever identifications of tiny Greek fragments during his career (he told he believes he has "a gift" for identifying such fragments), was persuaded that the letters were from Chapter 6 of the Gospel of Mark, from the end of verse 52 ("For they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened") and the beginning of verse 53 ("And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret, and moored to the shore.")

One group of letters caught O'Callaghan's attention: the four letters in the center of the fragment "" The letters puzzled him. Suddenly, he recalled what they reminded him of: the middle four letters of the word "Gearet."

When he checked the various passages where the word "Gennesaret" appears in the Bible, only one had words around it which could fit the other letters he could read on the parchment: Mark 6:52-53.

Thoroughly astounded (he knew that, if the identification was correct, he had discovered the oldest text of the Gospel we possess), O'Callaghan consulted with his Rector, Martini, then published his discovery.

O'Callaghan's "discovery" generated a storm of controversy, first among a limited group of specialists, and then throughout the mass media. Every aspect of the phenomenon was scrutinized: O'Callaghan's reading of the various letters (Had he identified each letter correctly?); the correspondence between 7Q5 and the Gospel of Mark (Might not the passage come from somewhere else?); and, above all, the dating of the fragment (Could it really be from the period between 50 B.C. and 50 A.D.?).

Dating Difficulties

In his first article (there were several as the controversy developed), O'Callaghan stated he had used the writing style of the fragment as his dating standard.

Since 7Q5 was written in (ornamental style), a style used from 50 B.C. to 50 A.D. (this was the dating of the noted Oxford University paleographer, Colin H. Roberts ), the fragment was necessarily datable to around 40-50 A.D. (It had to be a few years after the death of Jesus, but prior to 50 A.D.)

Moreover, it was clear to O'Callaghan 7Q5 could not be dated later than 68 A.D., the year the Qumran caves had been sealed by the (Vespasian's Roman legion). In that year, Vespasian, marching toward Jerusalem, had arrived at the Dead Sea and ordered his troops to fan out and massacre the small Jewish monastic communities of the area.

The monks' scrolls and codexes were hidden in natural caves (the Qumran caves), and remained unknown until they were discovered by accident by Bedouins in 1947.

Theological Implications

To understand the consternation caused by O'Callaghan's finding, we must consider the historical context. According to traditional Catholics (represented at the Venice Conference by members of the Italian movement), O'Callaghan's findings "revolutionize" the dating of the Gospels, up until a short time ago assigned by nearly all scholars to the period between 70 and 120 AD.

But the important point is less the date itself than it is in the ideological war now raging in the Church over the legacy of Vatican II and, more generally, Catholicism's relation to modernity.

The Catholic traditionalists hold that an earlier Gospel date is important because it directly refutes "liberal Protestants and modernist Catholics" who hold that the historical Jesus hardly resembles the "later" Jesus of faith. The Lefebvrists are in agreement with this view; in the April 15, 1995 edition of their bulletin , which focused on O'Callaghan's dating of the 7Q5 fragment, they censure modern biblical scholars as "enemies of Gospel historicity."

For traditionalists, O'Callaghan's theses are determinative in overturning the "rationalist" biblical criticism () of scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann (Bultmann, while accepting the historical figure of Jesus, relegated to mythology most of what he termed the New Testament "framework," including the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Assumption, and all miracles). Bultmann maintained that a process of "de-mythification" was necessary in Christianity, a purification of the Christian message to return it to its original form, the form he believed it had when first preached by Jesus and his immediate disciples (see box on Bultmann.)

Many would agree that Bultmann's legacy, in so far as it divides the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith, has been harmful. Under his theory, Jesus and all the historical facts of his mission suffer a grave diminishment.

But the debate becomes more complicated when Catholic traditionalists brand as "liberal and modernist" all those who hesitate to agree, often on scientific grounds, with O'Callaghan's contention that 7Q5 is from the Gospel of Mark, and this has happened in Europe in recent months.

For example, a new book on the 7Q5 fragment has just appeared in Rome. Entitled (), it is an anthology of articles on the dating of the Gospels which first appeared in two conservative Italian Catholic journals, (now defunct) and <30 Giorni> (in English, <30 Days>).

These articles contain frontal attacks on Pontifical Bible Institute member Father Gianfranco Ravasi and Naples University Theological Faculty professor Father Vittorio Fusco , accusing them of "Protestant-leaning" interpretations in their biblical criticism. (The two do make use of Bultmann's ).

These criticisms even extend to the published in 1964 by the Pontifical Biblical Institute and to the Doctrinal Constitution on Divine Revelation, , approved by Vatican II. In short, enamored of O'Callaghan's thesis, some of his supporters are mounting an attack on much of modern Catholic biblical criticism - including that sanctioned by the Pontifical Biblical Institute and the Second Vatican Council.

(Chapter II,< The Transmission of Divine Revelation>, paragraphs 7 and 8), does suggest that Catholics can understand the Gospels to have been written in stages. (For example, as in the following sequence: first Jesus spoke, then his disciples and the early Christian community remembered and repeated his words, then the evangelists wrote the words down in the Gospels as we have them.)

Now, if the Gospel of Mark was already written 40 or 50 A.D., there is not a great deal of time for such a process to have occurred. And this is precisely what the supporters of O'Callaghan argue: that the whole idea of a multi-stage development of the Gospels - even, apparently, when sanctioned by Vatican II - must be abandoned due to O'Callaghan's remarkable discovery.

This may be going too far. As Giancarlo Biguzzi , Professor of Sacred Scriptures and New Testament Studies at Rome's Pontifical Urban University, commented to us at the Venice Conference: "The precise way in which the Gospels are historical has been an issue since the beginning. Irenaeus spoke of it in 180 and St. Augustine wrote a book on the subject. The Second Vatican Council confirmed that the Gospels are historical, but described their origin as 'mediated, not immediate.'

"Jesus' words and deeds were neither recorded nor filmed, but preserved in the memories of his disciples, and disciples of disciples, as the Council stated, 'those of their circle'; that is already the third generation.

"Jesus spoke, then he was crucified. Thanks to oral tradition, Christ's words were transmitted with absolute fidelity. After the oral phase, some pieces were written, mostly the parables. About 90% of the Gospels came directly from Jesus, but the remaining 10% was added during the oral transmission or by the Evangelists. The words of Jesus are history; the oral tradition with its variations is not considered historical in the same way, but is attributed to autonomous catechists and to the Evangelists, who added something of their own."

Catholic traditionalists do not approve this formulation, since it suggests to them that scholars are leaving open the possibility that the New Testament authors "added" to the figure of Jesus to emphasize his greatness or authority - even "exaggerated" some things, that is, made them up. And, in fact, some modern scholars, like Bultmann, have said precisely this.

For Catholic traditionalists, every word the Gospels say about Christ is perfectly accurate history. They argue that this position has always been upheld by the Church, and that O'Callaghan's discovery is proof that it is the right position.

In short, the Catholic traditionalists are using the 7Q5 fragment as a weapon against 150 years of scholarly biblical criticism.

In Venice, O'Callaghan, assisted by Father Albert Dou , a Jesuit mathematician, used statistics to show that the text of 7Q5 cannot be anything but a passage from Mark. In fact, he said, computations show the odds are <1 in 900 billion> of any other passage having the same sequence of letters.

The Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Marco Ce , agreed with O'Callaghan: "Studies of archeological finds can offer us documentation of a complete continuity between the Lord and a tradition which cannot be manipulated. We must appreciate this type of research."

Father Klemens Stock , current Rector of the Pontifical Bible Institute, was guarded. "Debates are to be expected in the scientific community, particularly when what has formerly been considered a solid hypothesis is opened to questioning. The debate should not digress into questions of faith. I am convinced that, for the ordinary faithful, whether the Gospels were written in 50 or 70 A.D. is of little importance. Our faith is based on our relationship with the living Lord, who truly walked this earth. That the Gospels are closely linked to the historical Jesus is a no longer disputed fact."

Don Giuseppe Ghiberti, President of the Italian Biblical Association, also recommended avoiding polemics. "Whether there are 20, or 40, or more years between Christ's death and the writing of the Gospels makes a considerable difference, but it is no crime to harbor doubts concerning hypothetical dates for the Gospels, as in the case with O'Callaghan's study. Let us not radicalize the question."

This article was taken from "Inside the Vatican."

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