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Understanding New Approaches to the Gospels

About this article

The search for the "real" Jesus has become a hot topic in biblical scholarship, as well as the secular world in recent years. This article takes a look at where this scholarship has been in the recent past and provides helpful suggestions when dealing with historical criticism. This is an excellent background article when teaching gospel development.

The quest to trace the continuity between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith is not new. It was the stuff of 18th-century Enlightenment debate and is still the topic of current scholarship. What does it mean to Catholics?

At one time, those who allowed any distinction between Jesus and the Christ were thought to be tainted by Modernism. The studies of David Friedrich Strauss (1835), Joseph Ernest Renan (1863) and Albert Schweitzer (1906) saw little or no continuity between the Christ of the Gospel, seen as the risen Lord and proclaimed as such in the Church, and the itinerant prophet, Jesus of Nazareth.

The Catholic response rejected such a distinction because, it was believed, the two are one and the same. In a rather unnuanced fashion it was simply asserted that Jesus and the Christ are identical.

And what do we face today? The same investigation, indeed the same vocabulary, returns. For at least the third time in little more than 200 years we are again on a quest for the historical Jesus, long after many believers were certain that the "lost" Jesus had been found.

Looking for the Real Jesus

In current serious scholarship, what J. M. Robinson calls "the New Quest" has arisen out of the widespread recognition of the valid contribution of a form of Gospel research known as the historical-critical method. Through it we have an opportunity to determine both the authentic meaning and the historicity (or lack thereof) of any literary document.

By enlightening us on the intended meaning of a work, the method also helps to verify the extent to which the factual is present in an author, be it Homer, Virgil or the four evangelists.

In the present century, the Catholic Church was slow to recognize historical criticism of the Scriptures for a variety of reasons, not the least of which were its dominantly liberal Protestant origins and some of its early exaggerated conclusions. It was commonly asserted that little could be verified historically about the recounted events of Jesus' life and ministry.

By the 1950s, however, when I was doing New Testament studies in this country and abroad, the historical-critical method was gaining acceptance. This was especially evident in the use of form criticism or analysis of the various literary forms used to present the Gospel message, as well as the various stages of development from Jesus himself to the early Church and finally to the written Gospels.

In 1964, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued an Instruction on the Historicity of the Gospels. This document formally acknowledged, without specifying any particular methodology, that in seeking the authentic meaning of the Gospels, which is the object of historical criticism, various levels or stages of composition may be recognized. The process goes beyond stage one, Jesus' teaching, to stage two, the teaching of the apostles, to stage three, when the evangelists craft the written narrative. This 1964 recognition was supported in Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, which speaks of Jesus' life refracted through the experience of the early Church and finally the evangelist himself (5:19).

The strongest support of the historical-critical method in its various expressions came in 1993 with the Pontifical Biblical Commission's The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. This document offers a detailed analysis of the method and its limitations, clearly seeing its use as normative within the Church.

To Know Christ Risen

What is different, then, about the New Quest? It is the decisive importance of the Resurrection in interpreting the life and mission of Jesus. This has been paramount in Catholic and mainstream Protestant thinking in the last several decades. For the believer, it is the Spirit, conferred upon the Church by the risen Christ, who sheds the light of faith understanding upon the earlier ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

If one can say "Jesus is Lord" only in the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3) and the Spirit is the Easter gift to the Church, then it follows that the fuller understanding of Christ's person and life evolves from this later understanding. Since the Gospels are basically faith documents, written with a very determined point of view, it is logical to ask where faith commitment ends and history begins. To what extent does the message of faith color or even bypass the historical event?

Once we admit that the Gospels are the first catechisms of Christianity, written to deepen faith and not to present a historical replay of Jesus' life, then we need a method which will at least enable us to make an honest effort to separate the faith expression and reconstruct the historical foundation. Otherwise, our understanding of Christ may be reduced to an inspiring symbol or a mythical expression.

Scholars have painstaking work in attempting to reconstruct such a history. The Church honors their work and hopes that all Christians benefit from their investigations.

What Is Real?

The pursuit is not without controversy. Even after serious study, it is not the real Jesus who emerges; it is at best a construct. The yield for some is too meager or even dismally disappointing. Just as certainly as the criteria used will give some selections from the Gospels the stamp of history or, at least, the great likelihood, it will render others less certain. Some find this very disturbing.

What is a clear disservice to faith and scholarship is to caricature this as negative. Where there is no prejudice in favor of showing that things did not occur, then this should not be asserted. In fact, it is relatively rare that historicity is ruled out categorically.

The positive function of form-critical studies is to highlight the meaning and intention of the author. If that was to form Christian disciples or give a deeper understanding to a particular teaching, then the historical event may be partially or largely subordinated. In some instances, a teaching may bypass an actual historical event. That should not surprise us, when we appreciate the author's genre.

Let me cite an example. John Meier, a New Testament scholar at The Catholic University of America, in his work The Marginal Jew (Doubleday, 1991, 1994) addresses the question of historicity by asking if there is sufficient reliability for a given event to be accepted as historical by a reasonable person, be that person Catholic, Protestant, Jew or agnostic.

After applying the criteria of this critical methodology, Father Meier raises the question as to the likelihood that the event reaches back to Jesus of Nazareth. Detaching the question from what faith holds, the response may range from "Yes" to "Possible" to "No." This is a guarded response, looking solely to the underlying history, and is not concerned with the validity of what is being taught through the narrative. The results of this approach are often more favorable to the factual than might have been expected.

I was more than a bit distraught recently to hear a retreat conference by a popular preacher who is clearly unsympathetic to much of modern biblical scholarship and who punctuated his treatment of one of Jesus' miracles with the abrupt and unnuanced statement: "John Meier says that this miracle never occurred."

Such comments reduce serious scholarship to sound bites and succeed only in muddying the waters. Almost 40 years of teaching New Testament have convinced this writer that historical criticism, while pointing up real differences between the pre-Easter and the post-Easter Jesus, has shed important light as well on the continuity between the two.

Credo on Historical Criticism

I've summarized five conclusions which I believe are helpful in approaching the entire issue of the New Quest.

1. The concerns of the historical-critical method should be viewed in a positive light. The aim is not to create new waves of doubt on a sea of skepticism. At its best, the method establishes real links between the early Church and Jesus of Nazareth. In some instances the account proves to be so broadly attested or the literary creation of the event so unlikely that historicity emerges more clearly.

In other instances, it can be agreed that nothing in the event is out of character for a first-century, Palestinian, Jewish setting. It is probable or at least possible. In other instances, the selection is so intended to instruct and so embellished with theology that history is very hard--if not impossible--to come by. So be it. The results are positive in each instance, especially when one recognizes that truth is found in more than history.

2. The role of the Church in the composition of the Gospels is in total harmony with Catholic belief. We have long said that the Scriptures are integral to the Church's life. But now we know that the Church not only explains the Scriptures, but also authored them. It is difficult to see why Catholics cannot see the Church as fashioning the Gospels and attaching its own strong catechetical imprint. The Church is not a reporter but a teacher.

At a recent lecture by a respected Protestant (now Catholic) scholar, arguing the priority of Matthew's Gospel (a distinctly minority position), the lecturer underscored the importance of seeing Matthew as the first Gospel to be composed for drawing us closer to the actual words and deeds of Jesus. The greater the distance between the writer and his subject, the greater the danger of the text being "tinkered with" by the addition of extraneous nonhistorical data.

If the arguments for Matthean priority are valid, then texts like the primacy of Peter (Matthew 16) are better safeguarded by bringing Matthew as close in time to Jesus (and Caesarea Philippi) as possible. For Protestant thinkers, this may be of some importance. For Catholics it is quite irrelevant.

At what point a text may be added or expanded in the course of the transmission of what is ultimately recognized as an inspired and canonical text has no faith significance. The Petrine text is normative regardless of when or how it became part of the inspired text.

3. Development does not mean betrayal. To say that the Gospels often contain an elaboration on Jesus' thought does not mean that addition is at odds with his original intent. Luke Timothy Johnson in a recent article in Commonweal (1/16/98) treats the parable of the sower (Mark 4). In its first presentation (4:1-9), the narrative moves toward a single point, as is generally the case with parables. The final abundant yield of the seed points to the effective growth of the Christian community, despite initial fallout. Jesus' later explanation of the parable (4:12-20) attaches a special meaning to each category of seed in terms of acceptance of the Word (the path, the rocky ground, the thorns and the rich soil). Here the parable becomes an allegory.

As Johnson states, many scholars would see the later explanation with its various categories of believers as stemming from the early Church, while the original parable may be attached to Jesus himself. This implies for some critics, Johnson claims, that the Gospels themselves have begun to betray Jesus' original intent.

For these critics, the original parable then becomes authoritative and the later explanation finds the Church already on the slippery slope of allegorization, "the first step in a disastrous history of interpretation from which history alone can rescue readers."

In my experience, the "adversaries of allegorization" do not represent the greater body of New Testament scholars. The allegory of the sower has no less value than the parable which precedes it. Both are inspired and of equal value. If Jesus had something to say in the first, the Church had something to say in the second.

In preaching, there are times when we preach one or the other; each has important teaching. The allegory elaborates on the parable in drawing out further implications, while remaining in basic continuity with it.

4. It is the Christ of faith who is preached in the Church. Each Sunday it is the Gospel which is proclaimed, explained and applied. The homily is not an exercise in retracing the steps of Jesus of Nazareth, as spiritually energizing as that pursuit may be. It is certainly essential that preachers and catechists know the differences when they approach the text. If they are not to over-historicize, they must realize that it is the teaching of Jesus viewed through the Easter experience of Jesus as Lord and Son of God that is being preached to a believing community.

It is what the Matthean or Johannine Jesus says that counts, not what was plausible at a given place or time in first-century Palestine. Much of that "flesh and blood" Jesus has been transposed in the Gospels to a different key centered on the Lord of history. It is conveying that fuller message that remains our first responsibility.

5. The historical-critical method is not the only key to scriptural interpretation. We all benefit from criticism and this method has had its share, some of it warranted. The method tends to dissect and fragmentize the text, breaking it down into its various components. And what does this do to the final text as a true literary composition? Rhetorical, dramatic and literary qualities of a piece can enhance its meaning when given proper evaluation. The Fathers of the Church drew on the Scriptures continually in a nonscientific fashion but brought the text to life for their audiences in an enviable way.

No form critic can object to other forms of interpretation. No method totally exhausts the meaning of a text. Yet historical criticism voices a word of caution.

Certainly allegory can bring a text to life. As the Fathers were wont to teach, the scarlet cord of the harlot Rahab, placed in her window to effect her deliverance from Joshua's forces as they entered Canaan, became a type or symbol of the saving blood of Christ (Joshua 2). But an honest evaluation of the text must state clearly that such was not the intention of the original author.

In the first eucharistic prayer, we speak of "the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchizedek" on the occasion of Abraham's return from battle (Genesis 14:17-21). The bread and wine may certainly have eucharistic and sacrificial overtones for liturgical spirituality, but the exegete must clearly state that such is totally absent from the Genesis text where sacrifice or offering is in no way mentioned. Piety is helpful, but so is accuracy.

It seems quite legitimate to give a universal meaning to John's injunction to love. "One cannot love God whom he has not seen if he does not love his brother or sister whom he has seen" (1 John 4:20). It coincides with the Gospel teaching on love of all without exception.

At the same time, it must be admitted that the original author saw this love extended to other members of the Johannine community and not to opponents and detractors (2 John 9-10). In this way a text can take on a fuller meaning which may go beyond the original author's intent but is consonant with the broader teaching of the Gospels and the way the text has been generally used in the Church.

Quests Yet to Come

The New Quest has little more than the name in common with its predecessors of an earlier age. We have made immense gains in appreciating the meaning of the Gospel texts. Those who have been engaged in a better methodology in a post-conciliar Church can only be grateful.

That the historical-critical method will be augmented by other ways to understand the text seems inevitable and even providential. But to its credit, after a long and very demanding journey, it has brought us to the shores where we encounter an endtime prophet from Galilee, even if somewhat shadowy at times and reconstructed, one like us in everything except sin, who in God's plan has emerged as the Savior of the world.

Roland J. Faley is a member of the Third Order Regular of Saint Francis and has a licentiate in sacred Scripture (S.S.L.) from the Pontifical Biblical Institute and a doctorate in sacred theology (S.T.D.) from Saint Thomas University in Rome. He contributed to the original Jerome Biblical Commentary and its revision. His most recent book is Bonding With God, published by Paulist Press.

What Is the Historical-Critical Method?

1. It is a search to identify the earliest texts in the original language.

2. It is an effort to determine the age of the texts.

3. It is a linguistic analysis of the text to determine its origins and its sources.

4. It is a literary analysis of the text's form or genre. (See "What Is Form Criticism?")

5. It is a study of the editors' work or "redaction," speculating on motives for repetitions, interweaving of stories and other choices of material and sequence.

6. When these aspects have been exhaustively studied by specialists in each area, the final step is to "consider the demands of the text from the point of view of action and life" The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Pontifical Biblical Commission, l993).

The historical-critical method, says the Pontifical Biblical Commission, is valid but not all-sufficient. The "canonical" approach, which originated in the United States about 25 years ago, endeavors to approach theological interpretation from the "framework of faith." It tries to balance a respect for the earliest sources with an understanding of the text chosen by the Church as part of the official canon.

What Is Form Criticism?

Embedded within the historical-critical method is a subspecialty called form criticism. It is based on the principle that understanding how and why a work was formed casts light on its final form. It is the analysis of genre and structure. Within each Gospel, many genres such as parable, miracle story and wisdom sayings can be identified. Form criticism concerns itself with the setting and situation within which the text evolved. It wrestles with questions of purpose and the relationship of purpose to style.

Even though Rudolf Bultmann, a 20th-century German theologian, in employing the critical study of forms, denied the historicity of many events of Jesus' life, it is a valuable tool now acknowledged and appreciated by Catholic scholars.


© Copyright St. Anthony Messenger Press. This article was published with the permission of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, which provides study guides to accompany many of its articles. You can access these guides by going to the magazine's Links for Learners page. Teachers will find a wealth of other resources at the St. Anthony Messenger Press web site by clicking on this link: http://www.americancatholic.org/features/learners/

Published January 1, 1999.