<"Matthew wrote the oracles [>i.e<., the sayings of Jesus] in the Hebrew language, and
every man translated them as he was able.">
Papias, quoted by Eusebius, , III 39, 16. < "The Greek of St.
Mark, and to a large extent also the the Greek in which the sayings of Jesus contained in
the non-Marcan Gospels are expressed, is strongly Semitic in coloring, and bears all the
marks of what is described as 'translation Greek'... Are there Aramaic documentary
sources behind our Greek Gospels?"
, 1959, "Gospel"
It has traditionally been held in the Church that the four Gospels were written by two
of Jesus' 12 original disciples, Matthew and John , and by two "disciples of disciples,"
Mark and Luke , the disciples respectively of Peter and Paul . And, because the lives
of each of these writers were limited to the first century, it has been held that all four
Gospels were written within two generations after the crucifixion of Jesus, that is,
between about 30 A.D. and 90 A.D., and no later. It has also been held that they were
written in the following order: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, just as we have them in
the New Testament.
This tradition was based on fairly persuasive evidence: 1) the witness of very early
authors, like Eusebius in his , written in the early 300s but
based on numerous earlier documentary sources accessible to Eusebius and since lost;
Irenaeus of Lyons (late 100s); and Papias (early 100s), who had known the Apostle
John personally; and 2) the witness of the manuscript tradition itself, in which these
Gospels are always attributed to these authors.
Starting about 150 years ago in Germany, however, revisionist scholars began to
question both the authorship and the dating of these Gospels.
The Gospels were not by the actual individuals Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, these
scholars argued, but by "schools" or "communities" inspired by disciples of those
names. There were "intermediate texts," the scholars said, like the hypothetical "Q,"
from the German word "" ("source"), the alleged source for those sayings of
Jesus which appear in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark (of the 661 verses in Mark,
about 600 are found almost identically in Matthew and about 350 in Luke.) And, said
the scholars, this editorial process had taken decades, meaning that the Gospels could
not have been from the years immediately after Jesus' death, but from between 70 to
150 A.D., and even later. All of this tended to suggest that the Gospels were not really
very accurate historical records, but rather elaborate, historically-conditioned and
theologically skewed of an original message which had been covered
over by layers of much later material.
In recent decades, however, there has been a "revision of the revision." A number of
scholars have come to believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John may, indeed, have
written their Gospels, and may have written them at a very early date. The precise
dates continue to be in dispute, but scholars like the Anglican Bishop John Robinson
have gone so far as to say that all the Gospels were likely written prior to the year 70
A.D., when Jerusalem was destroyed. This has caused a furor in scholarly circles, as it
has suggested that much of the scholarship of the previous century was in error in its
insistence that there are "layers of development" in the Gospels which required
decades of time to emerge.
At the same time, another danger has arisen: that of an anti-scholarly, fundamentalist
attitude among Catholics which rejects all biblical criticism as hazardous to the faith.
This would be as much of a mistake as the critical attitude which it opposes.
Scholarship has its legitimate purpose, and must pursue truth on the basis of the
evidence it finds.
Thus, a great deal is at stake in the debate over the authorship and dating of the
Gospels, and we intend to follow this debate closely in the months and years ahead.
This article was taken from "Inside the Vatican."
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