Serving in my diocese’s Commission on Ministry, I meet men who aspire to holy orders. When I consider the importance of one aspect of ordained ministry, preaching, I find myself always ready to give practical advice. One thing I would never say from the pulpit is, “scholars say that Jesus didn’t actually say this,” or even, “scholars agree that Paul didn’t actually write this epistle,” (with the obvious exception of Hebrews, inasmuch as the epistle is, on the face of it, anonymous. Paul always identified himself up front. I think it contains Paul’s teaching, but was written by someone who had been in his missionary company before his martyrdom in Rome).
This is not because I have failed to read the arguments; it is mostly because nothing deflates a sermon faster than distancing oneself from the source of authority that undergirds your very presence in the pulpit. But, it is also because, having read the arguments and knowing the consensus (a word that has come to imply, to many, infallibility), I see holes that are not neatly sewn up. I appreciate the consistent logic that has been built into a tower; but, at times, I see what appear to be cracks in the foundation. The tower is a very impressive edifice, and the workmanship is unquestionably fine. But, what is below ground as a foundation?
Facts and logical constructs
Even in my earliest days as an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in history, I was taught that my discipline was a science. It was impressed on me by professors that nothing takes the place of evidence and documentation. As the years went on I began to see that a lot of writing about history (as opposed to writing of history) argues a point. In every science those who make arguments need to practice detachment (especially detachment from ego) inasmuch as “facts are,” as John Adams observed, “stubborn things.”
A subtle trap lies in this: In every science a certain amount of logic must be used to construct any theory. In reality theory is a word that includes basic things we know to be true, such as gravity. A true theory is proved by the facts, even though it can undergo additional elements, which indeed happened to our understanding of gravity when Einstein examined the work of Newton in light of Relativity, adding to the theory of gravity what we now know about the way it bends both time and space. So, a proven theory can grow to include newly discovered facts.
Some theories, on the other hand, can be proved false. That happens when logic, even flawless logic, is confronted by a fact that stands as a contradiction to some part of the premise upon which a theory was constructed. In other cases a theory can be on the table, based on a combination of evidence and logic, depending on logic to cover gaps that the evidence alone cannot prove. Indeed, such theories can be so impressive in their logic that they are quite convincing. This dependence on logic, to fill in the evidentiary gaps, helps to create consensus (and the same basic reality, in a very different way, applies to juries in courts of law).
The problem that I am faced with by some of the scholarly consensus on the Bible is not only gaps in the evidence, but arguments that can be made, and made quite plausibly, not with the logical construct of a given theory, but with the premise. This brings me full circle to the very basic History 101 caveat, that everything presented as a fact must be documented with evidence. The evidence comes first, and the logic follows, for logic is subject to facts; facts, those stubborn things, refuse to be subjected to logic, even the best logic of the finest scholars and scientists. When one moves up the academic ladder in any science, no matter to what height, the rule remains in place, reputations not withstanding, that facts come first, and logic follows. So, a theory that is yet unproved (and a collegial consensus all by itself is no substitute for proof), is constructed partly by evidence and partly by logic.
When I first read the original Book of Daniel I was struck quickly by the fact that I was reading not Hebrew, but Aramaic, but not throughout the entire book. Many ancient manuscripts come to us in fragments. Here was a book put together, I realized, from Hebrew fragments and Aramaic fragments. I questioned what had happened. Was a Targum of Daniel, that is an Aramaic translation from Hebrew for Jewish readers of a later period, mixed with older Hebrew portions? Of course, many writers have weighed in.
We are told that the scholarly consensus is that the predictive prophetic portions were added after they had been fulfilled. Of course the text states otherwise rather boldly, that Daniel was praying and was visited by angels. In the science of textual criticism a simple acceptance of the claims in the text are not taken as evidence. That I understand, because that is how real science is done. The problem is a different question altogether. The question is, did prophets foretell?
According to the content of scripture, throughout all of it, one element of prophecy was prediction. Bear in mind; that was only a part of it. Prophecy is when one speaks as the mouth of God, and most of the words of the Old Testament prophets were not predictive in nature, but rather an outcry against evil and injustice, mostly against injustice to the poor and the oppressed. However, the predictive element is so obviously and consistently woven into Biblical prophecy that no one can state that prediction of the future is no part of it. To say that Biblical prophets did not foretell is ridiculous on the face of it. Actually, nothing can be more obvious. According to the words in the texts, predictions as an element of prophecy take place quite often. No matter where you look in the Old Testament, this is an undeniable fact.
When we come to the New testament we see exactly two prophetic predictions in the Book of Acts, both from a Christian prophet, obviously recognized as such by the Church, named Agabus (Acts 11:28f, 21:10f). In the eleventh chapter this prophet foretold a drought. The Church had such faith in the predictive element of prophecy that the apostles themselves took action, and so we read in the Book of Acts, and in St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, about the “collection for the saints,” the money donated for the yet-to-be poor in the city where the Church was first established, Jerusalem.
Clearly, to those earliest Christians, it was no strange thing for prophets to tell the future. They had inherited this belief from their Jewish past, for it was a part of Jewish faith. Moreover, had they failed to heed the predictive element of prophecy, they would have not taken the actions needed to prepare for the future. Such a course of action must have brought to mind the story, already ancient in that time, of Joseph and Pharaoh in Genesis. Note, the prophecies of Agabus had nothing to do with revelation about matters of doctrine, such matters having been entrusted, according to the text, to the apostles rather than to the prophets of the Church. What is crystal clear is that the predictive element in prophecy was here, as in all of scripture, taken for granted by the believers. Had you told the ancient Christians that prophets did not predict the future, they would have regarded you as uneducated and foolish.
Herein lies the problem I have with one scholarly consensus, the cracks I see in the foundation of an otherwise impressively constructed tower of logic. The rationalization of some is that the Gospel of Mark, chapter thirteen, had to have been written after the year 70 AD. Maybe it was written that late. The real issue to me is a simple nagging question: Why must it have been written after 70 AD? One answer, we are told, is because it foretells the destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple.
In other words, contrary to what all of the Christians and Jews of the time had always believed, that the word of the Lord by the prophets often contained a reliable predictive element, we are to assume that Jesus could not really have predicted the future. The simple reality is this: that assumption has demoted Jesus not only to a mere man, someone who was not the Son of the Everlasting Father, but to someone even less than what all the prophets had been taken to be: the mouthpiece of God who knows all things, past, present and future. Aside from the assumption that Jesus could not have actually predicted the future, I accept reasonable evidence that has been presented for dating the synoptic Gospels as late.
I think it must be true that the Church had a Quelle (“source” in German) document, or “Q,” simply because it makes no sense to believe that the Church would have failed to put into writing the most important words ever spoken. The Church’s resources were never limited to complete dependence on nothing other than an oral tradition because it was never populated only by illiterates. That Mark and Matthew drew from this “Q,” and that Luke drew from it and other sources when addressing each of us as a “friend of God (Theophilus),” is indeed quite logical, indeed, obvious. We do not have the “Q,” but we do have the Gospels. In fact, in the seventh chapter of First Corinthians, Paul makes a distinction between the teaching of the Lord, and his own merely human but likely reliable judgment; the implication is that Christ’s teaching had been preserved faithfully, and that his readers knew what was in it
If you take away Jesus’ clear foretelling of the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple, you have to take away so much with it, the Parable of the Vineyard, the warning that the Kingdom of God would be taken from them and given to the Gentiles (spread to all nations), His use of the imagery of the Valley of Ben Hinnom (Gehennah) – the place where slain corpses are abandoned – and everything he foretold about the judgment to fall on “this generation.” Finally, when you come to the end of the Gospel of Luke, and read about the Risen Christ teaching His disciples about the Old Testament scriptures that had predicted the events of His life, His death and His resurrection, you have to assume that those ancient martyrs and fugitives, all of whom could have lived freely and without fear by simply coming clean and being honest, made up a bunch of tales not to be believed at all.
Right away, in the Book of Acts, we discover that the apostles relied on specific texts of Old Testament prophecy, in fact predictive prophecies, to prove that their man was the promised Anointed Son of David who had risen from the dead. The passage most often used in the Book of Acts, and that is either quoted or alluded to by most of the writers of the New Testament, is the Suffering Servant of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). This is brought home most clearly in the eighth chapter of Acts when Philip identifies the man of whom the prophet spoke as Jesus (Acts 8:35). When did the Church learn this, if not when the risen Lord was instructing the disciples as we read about near the end of Luke’s Gospel?
Unlike a Fundamentalist I recognize the human element in scripture. Matthew wrongly attributed a passage from Zechariah to Jeremiah, and Luke mistakenly names Quirinius as the Governor of Syria at an incorrect date. The Scriptures contain variants, and it is not always clear which of them is correct. No modern person should take the earliest chapters of Genesis as either science or history, but as allegory (after all, the incarnate Christ taught in parables when he walked the earth – so what’s the problem?). The greetings in the epistles, Paul’s expression of aggravation concerning those who troubled the Church in Galatia – yes, Fundamentalism insults the intelligence.
But, the human element contains a very real weakness in St. Paul’s writings, in fact his dictations. Early epistles, the ones everybody attributes to Paul, show that his amanuensis probably found it very difficult to keep up with his excited dictation. The amanuensis who took those epistles down did not tidy it up like a good editor would, not even completing every sentence. Yet, the Epistle to the Ephesians is polished and stylistically different, and the later Pastoral Epistles so different that the scholarly consensus is that Paul could not have written them. Furthermore, those epistles, unlike the earlier ones, show a church that is formed and organized instead of organic and purely charismatic, if not egalitarian.
Fair enough. I will say that in about another seventeen hundred years a music scholar may well say that the works attributed to J.S. Bach must have been written by no less than three separate composers, and for very similar reasons. Obviously, and worthy of an agreed consensus, the same man who composed the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, so much resembling the works of Buxtehude with its triple ending and very informal cadence to a minor resolution, cannot have been the man who wrote those later contrapuntal works, and someone else altogether must have written those concertos in various different ethnic styles. However, a mere three hundred years after the life of the composer, we know too much to make such astounding claims. A lot more has to be lost, and much history forgotten, before we can become so clever as all that.
As for Paul’s epistles, and those attributed to him (from Romans to Philemon – Hebrews remaining anonymous and obviously written by a man who followed the lead of St. Timothy, as Paul never did), I make no arguments. Rather, I question why a pseudonymous writer would wax so autobiographical and personal as we see in the last chapter of the Second Epistle to Timothy. But that is a question, not an argument. I have another question, knowing that Paul signed his epistles, always near the beginning, and in large letters (Gal. 6:11), could not differences in style and polish be differences between the men who acted as his amanuensis? Could not the more organizational content, ecclesiastically speaking, of the Pastoral Epistles reflect the growth and maturity of the Church as it evolved over time? These are questions, not arguments, and I am not the first to raise them. I might be the first, however, to desire an answer more evidentiary in nature than “consensus,” which, in the final analysis, is no answer at all, that is, unless this is all an art, not a science.
One answer I cannot accept is that we must reject the supernatural explanation. The assumption that Jesus could not have foretold the events of 70 AD, because we assume that prophecy has no predictive element, not only lacks evidence: It contradicts all of the evidence of the entire Bible and the of the world in which it was written and compiled. Moreover, it comes across to me as nothing but a mask for unbelief. What else could He not have done? What about having been born of a virgin mother? and what of rising from the dead into a new and immortal nature to save us? If he could not speak as the prophets were believed to have spoken, certainly He could not have done any of those other supernatural things either. But, in fact, He did it all. And, that is in accord with the consensus that matters most: The One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church guided, by the Spirit of Truth, into all truth.