Kulturkampf and the Gospel

Author: John Beaumont

Kulturkampf and the Gospel

John Beaumont

It is something of a truism that the ideological needs of a society inevitably affect the way that its literature is interpreted. Things get looked at in the light of a whole set of presuppositions that put the society in question in a favorable light. There is generally no need for conspiracy on the part of those who control things behind the scenes. All that is needed is that it be convenient, or fashionable, to approach things in a particular way. Something of this kind happened in Germany in the 1870's, at the height of that attack upon the Catholic Church which has become known to us as the Kulturkampf. What Bismarck relied upon then has become the common currency of today and is something that still poses a threat to the Church, a threat that, in some ways, is even greater than that posed during Bismarck's day. To give some kind of explanation of this we must start by going back to the year 1874.


In that year the biblical scholar Heinrich Julius Holtzmann was appointed to the prestigious chair of New Testament studies at the University of Strasbourg. The appointment was something of a curious one, for although Holtzmann had written an influential work (Die Synoptischen Evangelien. Ihr Ursprung und ihr geschichtlicher Charakter) (1863)), this had been subjected to severe criticisms as early as 1866 by another scholar, Hajo Meijboom. It has been stated that how and why this appointment was made is an unsolved question in the social history of biblical studies. The famous American New Testament scholar, William R. Farmer, writes as follows:

Correspondence between Bismarck and Ledderhose [the then Curator of the University of Strasbourg], who represented the university in the appointment process, focus on Holtzmann's church politics. There is no reference to the work of I Meijboom (nor, for that matter, to anything Holtzmann had ever published) in any of the documents preserved in the file on Holtzmann in the university archives in Strasbourg ('Bismarck and the Four Gospels 1870-1914', in The Four Gospels 1992, Festschrift Frans Neirynck, (ed F. Van Segbroeck, C.M. Tuckett, G. Van Belle, J. Verheyden), Vol. III (1992), p. 2478; reprinted in Biblical Studies and the Shifting of Paradigms, 1850-1914 (1995), p. 15).

The reference here to a possible role played by Bismarck should alert us to the wider political aspects of this decision, something to which we shall return. Whether there were in fact elements of state interest in the appointment process is something which we cannot know for certain, but, as Farmer himself goes on to say, the whole correspondence on this matter deserves publication and literary and social analysis. It is something to which we shall return later.

Surrounding Holtzmann's appointment, then, there may be an element of mystery. But, is this matter really of any great importance? Appointments in the academic sector are made (or not made) for all sorts of reasons. A close friend of the present writer related how he once sat on a panel interviewing candidates for an important university professorship:

The obviously outstanding candidate was on the point of being blackballed by some of my colleagues on the committee because he was not wearing a tie. This was a capital felony in those days, of course, and really he ought to have had the sense to know better. But I saved the day for him-by offering to buy him a tie-and he got the job.

On a more serious level, the fact that, for example, political reasons may often weigh in the balance in such appointment processes is perhaps not all that surprising in any era. However, it cannot be denied that the appointment of Heinrich Holtzmann was very convenient for a number of people. It was convenient for Heinrich Holtzmann, of course, for it gave his career a shot in the arm at a most opportune moment. It was also highly convenient for Bismarck, the 'Iron Chancellor' himself, for the date of 1874 was a most significant one in the fight which he was waging against the Catholic Church in Germany. In order to understand this, and perhaps to assess whether the chancellor gave events a nudge in the right direction by the appointment of Heinrich Holtzmann, it is necessary to go back just a couple of years. We need to take a look at the circumstances, less fortunate than those of Heinrich Holtzmann, which had befallen another teacher, albeit one at a lower level.


In 1870, Dr. Wollmann (his Christian name seems to have been lost to history) was employed as a Catholic teacher of religion at the gymnasium at Braunberg in East Prussia. Whether he knew it or not, the events of that year were to provide a major test of the doctor's Catholic conscience. On July 18th, 1870, the Church Fathers, assembled at the Vatican Council, had promulgated the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, Pastor Aeternus, setting out, inter alia, the Catholic teaching on the primacy and infallibility of the pope. This teaching was based on Christ's famous words in the Gospel of St. Matthew:

[T]hou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven (Matt. 16:16).

The teaching of the First Vatican Council would not seem to cause any problem to a loyal Catholic citizen. Whether its promulgation was opportune or not, and different people had different ideas about that, once defined, the matter was a dogma of the Church and therefore commanded assent. At the Council itself, when the final vote was taken, 533 of the fathers voted places and only 2 non places, one from Cajazzo in southern Italy and one, Bishop Fitzgerald, from Little Rock, Arkansas. However, as soon as the text of Pastor Aeternus had been read out (with that by now famous thunderstorm crashing around St. Peters at the time), the two dissidents fell at the pope's feet and gave their full assent. Not so, in due course, Dr. Wollmann. There was no assent by him to these decrees. The result was that he was excommunicated and deprived of his right to teach as excommunicated and deprived of his right to teach the Catholic faith.

Unfortunately for Dr. Wollmann, his case could not have arisen at a worse time. It coincided with the first stirring of the Kulturkampf, with the question of how the decrees of the Vatican Council were to be implemented. In the context of the Wollmann case, this was a potentially sensitive issue. The problem was that Dr. Wollmann's post, although it was to give instruction in the Catholic faith, was actually the subject of appointment by government officials, rather than by the Catholic Church. He was also paid by the state. The latter, then, saw itself as having an interest in his case. It is true that this type of employment arrangement had been in place for a long time in Prussia and had worked well, not least because of the fact that the Church authorities were consulted on appointments and, in return, no bishop would dismiss an employee without due cause. The difficulty here was that having potentially two masters at this time was inevitably a highly problematic matter. Unlike Heinrich Holtzmann in 1874, Dr. Wollmann was most definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The response of the German authorities to Wollmann's excommunication was to put pressure on Bishop Kremenz, who had issued that excommunication, demanding that Catholic students should continue to be instructed in the faith by Wollmann. When the bishop protested, the authorities followed up by issuing an ordinance which stated that as far as the state was concerned, the excommunicated teacher remained a member of the Catholic Church.

Events then quickly escalated. The Prussian bishops supported their fellow bishop by complaining to the emperor that the state was interfering in the Church's internal sphere of faith and the rights that flowed from it. The emperor responded by a communication to the pope himself, declaring that the Prussian government had acted strictly in accordance with the existing law as hitherto approved by the pope. This paved the way for a government declaration that the state was under no obligation to treat what it referred to as the adherents of the unchanged Catholic church as seceders from it. This thinly veiled recognition of the Old Catholic case opened the way for the state to recognize the property rights and legal status of those Catholic clergy who refused to give assent to the Council decrees and organized themselves accordingly. In this way a full attack on the position of the Catholic Church was put in progress.

It is unnecessary here to set out the measures imposed by Bismarck in order to break down Catholic resistance. They have been detailed fully on many occasions. Suffice it to say that many repressive laws were passed and enforced. The effect of these measures is summed up succinctly by Professor E.E.Y. Hales:

The consequences of the Kulturkampf were extremely serious for the Church. More than a million Catholics were deprived of the sacraments because thousands of priests were in exile or in prison. There were no bishops available to ordain new priests, because they had been relieved by the state of their sees, after their failure to secure the approval of the prefects to their ordination; two archbishops (Cologne and Posen) had been exiled. The government forbade parish priests to visit other parishes than their own to give the sacraments. And, as a sort of crowning insult, priority in the use of the churches was given to the handful of anti-Roman Old Catholics, and the government created a new bishopric which it bestowed upon the leader of that sect (The Catholic Church in the Modern World: A Survey from the French Revolution to the Present (1958), p. 235).

In the present context, what is more important is the battle for ideas at this time rather than the physical repression, which was an offshoot of this.


The conflict known to history as the Kulturkampf was, at its outset, nothing less than a struggle between Bismarck and Pius IX. Its nature is summed up by the historian, Anthony Rhodes, in these words:

It had little to do with culture, but was a campaign by Prince Bismarck to eliminate papal influence from the Catholic community in Germany. His dominating thought in the 1870's was to preserve the united Germany which he had just created, and which he considered the Catholic Church might disunite (The Power of Rome in the Twentieth Century (1983), p. 80).

It is certainly the case that the question of the role of the pope and his claim to be the successor of St. Peter was a key factor in this struggle. As William Farmer puts it:

Each of these titans lived out of and represented his own world of discourse. That of Pius IX was Catholic. That of Bismarck was Protestant. At issue is the figure of the apostle Peter, and how the pope is to be understood in relationship to Peter (Farmer, op cit, p. 2486).

The conflict between these two men was about the interrelationship of Church and state and whether, if it came to the crunch, Catholics had to obey the pope or Bismarck. The pope, of course, claimed to be God's representative, appointed by Christ, whose infallible successor he was. To the pope, the question related to whether Catholics were to obey God through his representative, or man. Bismarck, on the contrary, argued that German citizens were subject to the laws laid down by the elected representatives of the state, where the Protestants held a majority and Catholics were in the minority. In the light of these claims it is not surprising that the case of Dr. Wollmann should act as a focal point for this dispute.

The relationship between the Catholic Church and the authorities in Germany had been deteriorating over a number of years. Several factors can be pointed to in order to explain this. The main area of dispute, Prussia, was predominantly Protestant, but in this context, actually gave more freedom to Catholics than in most of the rest of the German principalities. This itself perhaps stimulated Catholic demands for further liberties. In addition, German liberalism had become increasingly imbued with materialism. It was influenced by that aspect of Hegelianism which emphasized the unlimited power of the state. It was especially antagonistic towards the Church and advocated the laicisation of society involving, inter alia, secularism in education and state control over religion. Added to all this was the fact that in the move towards German unity, Catholics were in favour of the inclusion of Austria in any unified state, whereas the Protestant policy was to support Bismarck's plan to exclude Austria and make Prussia the leading state. In addition, there is no doubt that some Catholics in Southern Germany were openly sympathetic towards France during the Franco-Prussian War. There was also opposition from Catholic clergy in Alsace-Lorraine to the incorporation of that area into the new German Empire.

As Catholics organized themselves in response to increasing hostility from Bismarck (himself a conservative, but one who disliked Catholicism as a religion) and the liberals, the increasing influence of the Centre party, which became powerful enough to challenge Bismarck's dominance, was itself a focus for further anti-Catholicism. However, important though all these factors were, it is something else that was central to the whole dispute. This is the question of the papacy. To start with, the latter had become increasingly influential in Germany. The growth of ultramontanism played its part in this. As a result, fears did exist, albeit unfounded, of an imminent Catholic offensive against the Protestant state. The atmosphere between Catholics and German liberals had already been adversely affected by the publication in 1864 of the Syllabus of Errors, which condemned many of the tenets of nineteenth century liberalism, such as freedom of speech and religion. The argument was then further cranked up a notch by the promulgation of the dogma of papal infallibility and primacy referred to earlier. It was almost inevitable that those decrees were seen as being anti-Protestant and as putting down a marker in the dispute over Church-state relations. These various factors resulted in the German liberals uniting with the conservative, and Protestant, chancellor to take part in a no-holds-barred attack on the Catholic Church. Dr. Wollmann had the misfortune to be caught in the middle of this.

We have seen that the question of papal authority and jurisdiction is central to this dispute. This was further underlined at the time by the fact that, in his response to the measures taken against the Church, the pope himself laid great emphasis on his own position as the successor of Peter and of the assurance arising out of this that the Church would be victorious in the end. In his encyclical, Etsi Multa Luctuosa (1873), the pope cited the phrase, "heaven and earth may pass away, but my words will not pass away." The words referred to, he said, were: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church." He then appealed to the witness of history that those who opposed the Church had been brought down while the Church itself "gleams brighter than the sun."

In a later encyclical he drew out once more the key issues:

[I]t is not to the powers of this earth that the Lord has submitted the bishops of His Church, but Peter to whom he has entrusted his sheep and his lambs. That is why no temporal power, however high, has the right to despoil of their episcopal dignity those who have been named by the Holy Spirit to administer the Church. It is necessary to obey God rather than men (De Libertate Ecclesiae (1875)).

The response to this of Bismarck leaves us in no doubt at all concerning his understanding of the decisive role played in all of this by the Vatican Council decree on papal infallibility and supremacy. In a speech before the upper house in Prussia in April 1875, the chancellor poured scorn on the pope's comparison between Peter and the papacy, claiming that Pius IX was not really Peter's successor since the apostle Peter had not been infallible.

Whatever response Catholics might make about Bismarck's theological knowledge in the light of this, it is clear from what was being said that Bismarck was under no illusions about what was at stake here and the theological consequences of what Pius IX was referring to. William Farmer draws out the implications of this:

This skillful use of biblical exegesis strongly suggests, if it does not prove, that Bismarck and his advisors understood the role of Peter in the ongoing political struggle. It is clear that they would have understood the way in which state interests would be served by a university endorsed counter argument. Of course this counter argument could not be effective unless it was supported in most, if not all, influential universities of the realm. This certainly included the university of Berlin and universities like the newly reconstituted university of Strasbourg. Essential to this development would be a professorate that was sensitive (but not openly subservient) to the interests of the state, and a government that knew how to work with local university officials (Farmer, op cit, pp. 2491-2492).

And this is where Heinrich Holtzmann comes in again.


What Bismarck and the state authorities in Germany needed was what has been called by the modern scholar, Bo Reicke of the University of Basel, a theologumenon, a governing position which would buttress their position and, at the same time, cast doubt on the position of Pius IX and the Catholic Church. This is what Heinrich Holtzmann provided.

Why, then, was Holtzmann's appointment to the influential position at Strasbourg so useful to the Bismarckian position? Stated simply, the answer is that Holtzmann was the leading exponent of what is called the theory of Marcan priority. The interesting question is whether there was a conscious plan on the part of the authorities, notably Bismarck himself, to provide for themselves an ideological platform of this kind in their struggle against Rome. There certainly was every incentive for such a plan.

Before considering that, however, it is necessary first of all to examine the theory which Holtzmann put forward and explain its significance in the present context, which is to view the nineteenth century Kulturkampf so as to assist us in the opposition to its twentieth century successor. The topic in question is something which is usually referred to as the 'synoptic problem.' This investigates the issue of whether and, if so, how the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are dependent upon each other from a literary point of view. They certainly seem to be, because they say basically the same things in roughly the same order. Sometimes, all three versions of an incident are word-for-word the same or very similar. Matthew and Luke are both longer than Mark and some passages appear only in the first two, where once more there is complete or virtual similarity. Clearly, someone or more than one is copying from the other(s), or from some other common source.

The traditional approach to these questions was that Matthew's gospel was the original one. There is weighty support for this in the writings of the Fathers and it was overwhelmingly the view of Catholic exegetes before the Second Vatican Council. In addition, a strong case can be made for this approach on internal textual grounds. The best modern analysis supporting the priority of Matthew can be found in Orchard and Riley, The Order of the Synoptics (1987). The other theory was that the gospel of Mark was published before that of Matthew. According to this theory, Mark is a principal source of both Matthew and Luke, of which, however, they each made independent use. Further, or so the theory goes, they also made independent use of a Sayings Source (this is usually referred to by scholars as 'Q').

This is not the place to go into details regarding the merits of the two theories. The present article is concerned rather with what might be called the sociology of this question. However, to the reader who approaches this whole question without any pre- conceptions, there would seem to be several major drawbacks with the theory of Marcan priority (drawbacks which are analyzed in depth by the modern German scholar, Hans-Herbert Stoldt, in his History and Criticism of the Marcan Hypothesis (1980); and by William R. Farmer in The Synoptic Problem (1964) and in Jesus and the Gospel: Tradition, Scripture and the Canon (1982)). First of all, it ignores the consistent evidence of the Fathers of the Church. Of course, there are questions of Catholic principle on which the Patristic evidence is in conflict, but on this matter, all the worthwhile testimony from the Fathers is in favour of the priority of Matthew. Secondly, it seems an astonishing coincidence that Matthew and Luke should independently have agreed in their changes to Mark. Thirdly, the existence of 'Q' is unsupported by anything other than a hypothesis. There is no evidence at all of the existence of such a document. This does not exactly make the Marcan priority theory the most economical.

One New Testament scholar sums up the difficulties with the theory in this way:

The chief difficulty about this theory is the need to presuppose that neither Matthew nor Luke knew each other's work; this would make the independent 'Q' superfluous, since one could have copied direct from the other. The number of coincidences between them, when each adjusts Mark in exactly the same way, makes it seem increasingly likely that one did directly know the other's gospel. If this is in fact the case, the whole theory collapses (Dom Henry Wansborough, The Origin of the Synoptic Gospels (1992), p. 7).

Perhaps, because of these factors, the theory of Marcan priority, whilst enjoying some supporters during the 1860's and 1870's, was never in a strong position. It is, then, intriguing, and somewhat surprising, that this same theory, about which no new evidence had emerged in the meantime, should have been adopted, possibly by 1880, and certainly by 1914, as something approaching a dogma by the liberal Protestants in Germany. The change in its fortunes can be traced with accuracy to the period of Kulturkampf in the 1870's. Why this is so has been the subject of much debate recently. But, before we look at this, it is necessary to examine why Marcan priority should have become flavor of the month at just this time.


Why should what is, after all, a theoretical question, which was discussed in academic circles, be of any importance in relation to the current issue? The reason is that Marcan primacy is very convenient for those who wished to take an anti-Catholic position in the prevailing Kulturkampf. First of all, and absolutely central to the issue here, is the question of papal supremacy, so important in the struggle between Bismarck and Pope Pius IX. Jaroslav Pelikan, the Protestant historian, refers to the relevant passage in St. Matthew's gospel, already quoted earlier, as "the charter of Roman Catholic Christianity" (see The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (1959), p. 79).

And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven (Matt. 16:18-19).

A theory of Marcan priority is vital here, of course, for one simple reason. This is that the petrine passage is notably absent from Mark's gospel. Adopting Marcan priority, the traditional role of Matthew, as the foundational gospel, can be radically watered down. If the Marcan priority theory is correct, then this leads to an inevitable late dating for the other gospels, with the result that the person to whom these gospels are attributed must have been dead before the gospel was published. Thus, the connection between Christ, the gospel, and the gospel writer, is cut, with the inevitable weakening of the historicity of the gospels. This leads to the inevitable argument that the earliest and most reliable material came from Mark and 'Q', and the later (and by implication less reliable) from the other gospels, including now Matthew. The inference was that this later material came only indirectly from Christ and was filtered by the particular needs of the early Church community. Thus, what was a classic ploy of Enlightenment thinkers in the eighteenth century is re-packaged by liberal writers at the time of the Kulturkampf. The passage on Petrine primacy is thereby potentially fatally weakened in its impact, something which was exactly what the state authorities wanted in its struggle with the Vatican.

But, the theory of Marcan priority is not limited to this single means of weakening the Catholic position. What it also does is to cast doubt on the whole witness of the early Fathers. The inevitable implication is that if they could get this question wrong so dramatically, are they worthy of belief in other matters? And so, traditional apologetic evidence on matters like the real presence, where Catholic writers have appealed to references to the Catholic position as early in the Church as at the time of the Fathers, is seen to be made less credible. In addition, the Catholic Church loses out here in another way. It is she who vouches in so many ways for the testimony of the Church Fathers and its importance. If she is wrong on this in such a major way here, what happens to her credibility on other matters as well?

The downplaying of Matthew's gospel also assisted the state authorities in other ways. It allowed them to ignore those apostolic discourses in Matt. 10:18-38, in which Christ lays down the way in which his disciples must resist unjust authorities and which has strengthened the resolve of Christians down the ages. The way in which this helps the Bismarckian agenda is set out by Farmer:

Sociologically speaking, "Marcan primacy" leads to a deconstruction of canonical authority based on the apostolic witness of the Church as traditionally understood. As most Lutherans think, however, it is not Matthew, but Paul who norms the New Testament. And, as every good Lutheran in Bismarck's day knew, the apostle Paul teaches that Christianity should be subject to the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1-5).

Traditionally, the Church had always read these words in Romans in dialogue with the words of Jesus embodied in the gospels which steel resistance against those unrighteous authorities who can kill the body but who cannot kill the soul. But in Lutheran circles, where the authority of the gospels, especially the canonical authority of Matthew, was under a cloud, this essential exegetical dialogue was suspended, and Rom. 13:1-5 was absolutized to serve state Interesse. This meant that Bismarck could count on the support of a Protestant-dominated Prussian legislature in his move to fine, arrest, and imprison Catholic priests and bishops who resisted the authority of the German state (Farmer, op cit, p. 2497).

It is at this point that one may appreciate the significance of W.R. Farmer's thesis that state interest had a major part to play in the appointment of Heinrich Holtzmann to the Strasbourg post. It has been seen that, quite clearly, Bismarck himself understood the issues involved here. In addition, it is clear that in the field of German history the way of teaching the subject in German universities certainly changed radically from 1870 onwards. After that date there was only one way in which German history might be taught, and that was from the point of view of Germany as a nation state. And on this question there is evidence that the process of appointing professors was affected by ideological concerns. Yet, once again, the correspondence kept in the university archives contains no explicit statements to clarify exactly how such ideological concerns may have affected the appointment process (on this last question and that of the delicate relationship between German universities and the state in that period, see C.E. McClelland, State, Society and University in Germany, 1700-1914 (1980)). If this had happened in history faculties, why not in those of theology?

One possibility is that Holtzmann's appointment was the result of direct intervention by Bismarck to obtain someone who would work to undermine that papal supremacy which, as we have seen, was at the heart of the Kulturkampf then being fought out between the Chancellor and the Vatican. Such a development would have been especially convenient to the chancellor. As Farmer himself agrees, the existing material in the Strasbourg archives concerning Holtzmann's appointment to his professorship does not contain express statements which would give an answer to the question. But, this does not dispose of the issue. After all, it is not all that likely that Bismarck would spell out the reasons in the circumstances. However, one can become very easily seduced by the "argument from conspiracy." At the distance of over a century, it is unlikely that there will emerge conclusive evidence one way or the other.

However, there really is no need to posit a deep conspiracy in order to account for the rise of Marcan priority in the absence even of any compelling evidence in support of that theory. As was stated earlier, the ideological needs of a society inevitably affect the way that its literature is interpreted. If society's interests mean that it is convenient to look at particular evidence in a certain light, then this is what happens. Marcan priority theory was simply a theory whose time had come. In the history of ideas, of course, this factor may mean that the governing theory on a particular question at a particular time may bear little relationship to the truth of that theory. All that is needed is that all the elements necessary to the popularity of such a theory come together at the same time. All the elements which come together in this particular case are in fact referred to by Farmer himself and together they make a pretty compelling case for the application of state interest in this matter.

1. The developing anti-Catholicism of the time in Germany, the roots of which have been referred to earlier.

2. The Protestant domination of the German state, also referred to earlier.

3. The state-supported universities, which became a kind of Protestant magisterium at this time. Also, the fact that appointments to professorships within the universities were in the hands of the state, which thereby had ultimate control. In order to get on in academic life it was necessary to conform to the governing theories. That this is so is illustrated by the fate of those who held out against the prevailing consensus. A good example is Adolf Hilgenfeld, who had written a critical review of Holtzmann's book. As Farmer explains, "Protestant pastors caught up in the spirit of the times simply ceased to recommend to young theologians that they go to hear Hilgenfeld. It was deemed not necessary to take his views into account" (op cit, p. 2492). Conversely, young theologians were advised that Holtzmann was a professor whose opinions they did need to take into account. It was all very simple.

4. Linked with the last factor is the well-developed nationalism in Germany at this time, which leads to the questions posed by Farmer: [W]ould these German scholars also be free from all national sentiment? For example, would Catholic professors during the Second Reich be immune from societal pressure emanating from a majority prejudice that a Catholic "cannot love his Fatherland"? (op cit, p. 2494).

5. A considerable and influential movement of a Catholic form of liberalism within Germany. As Lillian Wallace puts it:

The leading German churchmen had been building up a powerful Catholic party which aimed at harmony with the world of science, resented Jesuit influence over the pope, and strongly opposed further centralization of power in Papal hands (The Papacy and European Diplomacy, 1869-1878 (1948), p. 154).

The central aim of Catholic liberals was for an accommodation of differences between themselves and Protestant Christians so that all could work for the interests of a unified Germany.

6. The need to establish a modus vivendi between the Christian majority in Germany and the Jewish minority. Once again, the downplaying of Matthew's gospel is vital here. Farmer explains why:

[A]ll passages in scripture which had fed Christian anti-Semitism throughout the middle-ages needed to be discounted. This meant not only that the terrible words in Matthew "let his blood be upon our heads", needed to be relativized; so also did the stinging condemnation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. This was effectively achieved by denying the foundational role of Matthew in the constitution of the Church, and by turning this foundational role over to earlier hypothetical sources which were sanitized as much as possible from anti-Jewish polemic (op cit, p. 2485).

7. The rise of science in the nineteenth century. It was the science of biology which provided some ruling models for other disciplines. If life appeared to develop from simpler forms into ever more complicated ones, it came to be seen as credible to think of literary forms as developing from the simple to the complex. In this way it became natural to see the more simple Mark and 'Q' as combining to make up the more developed gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Equally important is the fact that the few parables of Jesus found in Mark included the so-called parables of growth, which fit beautifully the philosophical scheme of development which dominated late nineteenth century thought. Under this norm, the kingdom of God was conceivable as a developing social reality which rendered theologically credible a theory of social progress leading to higher and higher forms of communal existence corresponding to the evolutionary development of biological realities from simple forms of life to higher and higher forms of intelligence, culminating in man (William R. Farmer, The Synoptic Problem (1964), pp. 178-179).

8. One must, as in all human affairs, add the element of pure chance. It so happened that, at this point in time, the major figures who had written against the theory of Marcan priority were, for one reason or another, silent or engaged in other fields of research. In addition, this period also coincides with the demise of two of the leading journals in which such views had been published (see on this D.B. Peabody, "H.J. Holtzmann and his European Colleagues," in Biblical Studies and the Shifting of Paradigms, 1850-1914 (ea. H.G. Reventlow and W.R. Farmer) (1995), at pp. 125-131). As far as can be seen, although the influence of Bismarck was no doubt wide-ranging, there is no evidence that he had a hand in this!


Of course, it may turn out to be the case that Mark's gospel was written first. Whether or not a particular theory is convenient or not, one must defer to the truth. The first lesson which we should learn from this whole affair is that whether Marcan priority theory is true or not is something which must be decided according to the evidence. The Catholic Church, being the authentic Church of Christ, cannot be harmed by the truth. Nevertheless, one cannot help but be suspicious at the turn of events in this century relating to some of the matters which we have been considering. It may be that the experience in this respect of the Kulturkampf should provide us with advance warning as to what may happen in this later phase of the culture wars, in which again Enlightenment ideas have forced themselves to the fore.

Although, as stated earlier, this article is primarily concerned with the sociology of the synoptic problem rather than the truth of the problem, two things are blindingly obvious. The first is that the traditional theory relating to the order of the production of the gospels seems to have been neglected during the nineteenth century much more for ideological reasons than for ones which related to its truth or falsity. As a result, the opposing theory was allowed to establish a position of ascendancy more by default than by its intrinsic merits. Secondly, evidence in support of the traditional stance has accumulated apace during the present century. The work of Stoldt, Orchard, Farmer and others, and the conference literature on this, testify to this fact (the literary references are gathered together in Dom Bernard Orchard's 'Del Verbum and the Synoptic Gospels', in Downside Review, Vol. 372 (July 1990), p. 199, at pp. 212-213). Yet, all of this has been played down or neglected.

That this should have happened in Protestant circles should not be so much of a cause for surprise. This may be more to do with a possible loss of face than anything else. The history of Protestant exegesis since the early nineteenth century has seen an enormous investment go into the rejection of the traditional approach.

It is interesting to speculate why the Markan Priority Hypothesis has maintained its dominance ever since the twentieth century began; perhaps it is partly because it is a product of the Enlightenment from which German biblical scholarship has achieved its greatest stimulus, and so it has come to be regarded as the greatest achievement of Protestant biblical scholarship, and there is a kind of 'gut' feeling that Protestant theologians would lose 'face' if it were seen to be false (Dom Bernard Orchard, The Formation of the Synoptic Gospels, Downside Review, Vol. 362 (January 1988), p. 3).

But, the approach of many Catholic scholars cannot be explained away so easily. Of course, the decisions of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1911 upholding the traditional account of gospel origins determined the approach of Catholic exegetes during the early part of the century. The ban on the Marcan priority theory continued to be maintained, at least officially, in Catholic universities for a considerable period of time. Since Vatican II, all restraint has disappeared and Catholic scholars have generally joined the bandwagon and accepted Marcan priority. The effects of this have not been limited to the realms of academe. Even in a recent popularizing pamphlet produced by the Catholic Truth Society, How To Read Mark, we find this:

Mark is worth paying attention to because his was the first Gospel to be written... he invented 'Gospel' as a literary form.

It is interesting in this context to look at the major modern Catholic commentary on scripture, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (ea. Raymond E. Brown S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer S.J., and Roland E. Murphy O. Carm). In its latest edition, published in 1990, there is an article on the synoptic problem, written by Frans Neirynck. Believe it or not, this article devotes thirteen columns of text to the Marcan priority theory and only one column to what it refers to as "other theories." Of these, much less than one column is given to the traditional theory. It really does look as if the Marcan view has triumphed today in Catholic circles as well, again not by its merits but by default.

It is interesting also to note that, in contrast to the First Vatican Council, none of the decrees issued at Vatican II proceed from the petrine passage in Matthew. As William Farmer puts it:

With Vatican II behind them, contemporary Roman Catholic scholars can justifiably interpret their more favorable reception by Protestant colleagues as evidence that they are now more readily perceived as capable of being free of Vatican influence. It is not clear, however, whether they realize that this more favorable perception has been bought at a price, i.e. the apparent wholesale, unquestioning academic acceptance of Marcan primacy (read: anti-ultramontanism) (op cit. p. 2495, n. 35).

Certainly, those eighteenth century representatives of the enlightenment, such as Reimarus, would have been delighted by these developments. Here is what Reimarus wrote to a friend in about 1770:

Our task is completely to separate what the Apostles presented in their writings (i.e. in the Gospels) from what Jesus himself actually said and taught during his lifetime (quoted by W.G. Kummel in The New Testament: A History of the Investigation of its Problems (1973) p. 89).

Little did he suspect that, one day, Catholic exegetes would be doing his job for him. But, our examination of the ideological forces at play during the Kulturkampf shows that many of those forces are present again today and contributing to the present malaise. In particular, the liberal Catholic agenda seems to have established a stranglehold over the university sector. This is coupled with a perceived need on the part of Catholic academics to be accepted in a world so long dominated by Protestant exegesis. In addition, thought processes set in the evolutionary terms are still fashionable. The current ecumenical scene provides a further impetus not to rock the boat. It is surely not entirely coincidental that many of the same names crop up here as did a few years ago when the Oxford logician, Michael Dummett, spoke out about the way in which, under the present "liberal consensus" in the Church, doubt is being cast on traditional doctrines like the virginal conception and physical resurrection of Christ (see the 1987 and 1988 issues of New Blackfriars for the literature on this). On that occasion, the liberal "academic hierarchy" responded with a furious attack on Dummett, an attack which, in many respects, was more personalized than based on the matters which he had raised. In the present case, the tactics have been somewhat different, but the results have been the same, a dismissive denial that there is anything further to say on the matter. And yet, the same potentially anti-Catholic points, which the newer theory has built into it, remain, and are of importance today. The experience of the Catholic fortunes at the Kulturkampf should cause us to watch out for similar results of Enlightenment tactics today. All the more reason, then, to bring to people's notice the new scholarship which is, of course, a further refinement of the older scholarship. This may have become unfashionable for ideological reasons, but still form a bulwark for the faith, providing, as it does, a sound basis for historical Christianity.

We referred earlier to the unfortunate Adolf Hilgenfeld, more or less isolated by German academe and yet valiantly protesting against the Marcan hypothesis at every turn. David Peabody asks poignantly whether, at the end of his career, Hilgenfeld was crying out like Elijah and saying, "Oh Lord, I am the only prophet of Matthean priority still left, but there are four hundred and fifty prophets of Marcan priority. I alone am left, and they seek to take even my life?" (op cit, p. 131). Let us hope that those brave Catholic scholars who hold out for tradition are not left in the same position as a latter-day Hilgenden. That one of these scholars, Dom Bernard Orchard, viewed the situation as being serious, can be gleaned by the fact that he gave voice to his fears at a meeting of concerned Catholics in 1982. What he said then sums up well the issues involved:

[S]ince 1946, the majority of Catholic professors of the New Testament have given their support to the hypothesis of the priority of the Gospel of St. Mark, on grounds (strongly controverted all the same) of internal critical evidence alone. In practice, this has meant that they deny that the Apostle St. Matthew could have published his own Gospel; and this, in turn, amounts to saying that all the Church Fathers and the early Councils erred on a matter of fact in saying that St. Matthew wrote his own Gospel. In other words, the modern biblical 'authorities' are committed to denying that the Church has accurately transmitted the true tradition regarding the authorship of the Gospels. In many respects, this denial may be equated with the denial by many, in another sphere, of the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. which the Church has positively affirmed to be the true tradition, despite the historical evidence being perhaps less than that for the Gospels.

Be this as it may, I merely want to state here that I believe the historical evidence for both these doctrines is sufficient to support fully the truth of the official teaching of the Church regarding both. The denial of the Church's power to retain the true tradition regarding full apostolic authorship shows as great lack of faith in the Church's integrity as it would be to deny her right to affirm Mary's perpetual virginity. In this matter Catholic biblical scholars have claimed a competence in the domain of history which they do not possess. To accept the Gospels as the Inspired Word of God, as they do, but, at the same time, to claim their anonymity by denying the unanimous testimony of the early Fathers is not merely illogical but a yielding to the clamour of the unproven assertions of the nineteenth century rationalist critics and their followers. The professional historians of secular history of the same period cannot understand such behaviour on the part of the biblical men.

It is time therefore, when defending the Tradition on other counts, to defend also the Tradition that the Gospels, as we have them, are indeed the genuine 'reminiscences of the Apostles.'

John Beaumont is an outstanding English scholar and frequent contributor to Fidelity.

This article was taken from the December 1996 issue of "Culture Wars"...