Few Protestants raise an eyebrow over the fact that there is a 2,000-year lacuna between the Scripture’s inspiration and their personal copy of sacred Scripture. For them, what transpired in…
Few Protestants raise an eyebrow over the fact that there is a 2,000-year lacuna between the Scripture’s inspiration and their personal copy of sacred Scripture.
For them, what transpired in those intervening years really isn’t very important. What really matters is that they have a Bible and that they can use it to confirm doctrine. As long as we end up with a Bible, what harm is done? But it still begs the larger question: Where did the Bible come from?
The Bible is the product of those missing 2,000 years, and when it is divorced from the Catholic Church from which it came, Scripture’s authority is undermined. The fact is that the Bible is a Catholic book. It was written, authenticated and passed on to us today through the Church. In many ways, the Church is the Bible’s custodian and interpreter. Without the Church, we really have no rational basis to believe with certainty that the Bible we possess is the Bible and that it is capable of confirming doctrine.
“Not Done in a Corner”
Let’s consider this last statement from the perspective of the first Christians. The words and deeds of Christ and His inspired apostles were not done in secret, or, as Paul told King Agrippa, they were “not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26); they were done publicly. The writings of the New Testament were composed by members of the same community that heard, saw and were taught by Jesus and/or His apostles and disciples. Therefore, this first Christian community functioned as a guarantor of the truthfulness or veracity of the Gospels and the rest of Scripture. After all, who would risk their lives, fortunes and honor to promote spurious and inaccurate documents? If the Scriptures simply parachuted into existence, there would be no witness from the early Church. How then would we know whether the Gospels and other books were telling the truth, much less that they are capable of confirming doctrine?
Someone could argue that since the Scriptures are inspired by God, who cannot deceive nor be deceived, they must be trustworthy. But this response misses the point. It’s not a question of whether inspiration conveys truth. It is a question of what basis is there for knowing whether a given document is inspired and truthful. It is similar to the question, “How do you know Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew?” Most Bible Christians would point to the fact that Matthew’s name appears on the book’s cover page. The title, however, was not part of the inspired original. It was added later by Catholics who knew that the Gospel was traced back to Matthew. Without these Catholic witnesses, how would one know the Gospel’s authorship? We can’t. Without the Church, we really can’t establish the veracity of the Gospels or the rest of the contents of the New Testament.
Inspired, Not Spurious
How do we know that the writings of Scripture are from inspired sources and not spurious? The Church had to deal with this difficulty early on. In 2 Thessalonians 2:2, we learn that the Thessalonians were upset by “a ‘spirit,’ or by an oral statement, or by a letter allegedly from us [the apostles] to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand.” How did the Thessalonians determine whether or not this letter was spurious? Paul gives them the means to authenticate his letter in 2 Thessalonians 3:17: “This greeting is in my own hand, Paul’s. This is the sign in every letter; this is how I write.” Paul knew that the recipients of his letter would recognize his signature and handwriting based on their own personal knowledge of Paul. By using this knowledge, the Thessalonians were able to confirm the Second Epistle to be authentic. Without the Catholic community’s witness to its authenticity, how would we know whether or not Paul wrote this letter? The original inspired autograph no longer exists, and even if it did exist we no longer have access to the knowledge that the Thessalonians had concerning Paul’s handwriting. Scripture, when removed from the context of the Catholic Church, loses an objective basis for demonstrating the New Testament’s authenticity.
There is also the problem of the canon. The New Testament began as separate documents. Who gathered these documents together and placed them into a single volume? A generic answer like “the early Christians did” is simply inadequate. Early on there were several different groups who held to different “canons” of Scripture. For example, one group, called the Marcionites, only accepted the letters of Paul and an adulterated version of Luke as Scripture. On the other hand, the Ebionites rejected Paul’s letters and accepted an altered form of the Gospel According to Matthew. Even among the Jews there was disagreement over the Old Testament. The schools of Shammai and Hallel were split over Ecclesiastes’ sacred status. The Essenes seem to have rejected Esther, but accepted Tobit, Sirach and some of their own writings as sacred. Which one was right? Or, were any of them right? Without a single, authoritative, identifiable Church — that is, the Catholic Church — to show us what was the true canon, there is no adequate way to answer this question.
But couldn’t someone say that these groups do not pose a problem because they were heretical? For example, one could say that post-Christian Judaism can be eliminated because they rejected Jesus as the Messiah? Likewise, the Ebionites can be scratched off because they denied justification by grace. The Marcionites could be eliminated because they were Gnostics and believed in two gods, and so on.
After all these heresies are eliminated, the true Christians would be left and with them we would find the correct canon. Unfortunately, the objection above fails because it begs the question. The objector begins with a specific canon of Scripture in mind (which is presumed to be true) and then de-duces from his canon a set of doctrines (which is also assumed to be true) as the standard to judge other groups. Once all challengers are eliminated by the objector’s set of doctrine, his canon is “proved.” In other words, the objector uses a scriptural canon to form a set of doctrines, then uses the set of doctrines to prove his scriptural canon.
The true canon of Scripture is something more to be discovered than determined. The Church received its sacred writings from the apostles, and the Catholic Church manifests the true canon of Scripture by its continuous use of certain books as sacred Scripture in its liturgies. Without the Catholic Church, the canon cannot be made manifest, and if the canon is not made manifest then it is up to each individual Christian to determine which books should or should not be included in Scripture.
The Bible, therefore, is really a Catholic book in that it came from the very heart of the Catholic Church. Its authenticity, veracity, canon and proper interpretation all depend upon the witness of the Church. When the Bible is taken out of its Catholic context, the very foundation upon which we can know that the Scripture is inspired, true, authentic, complete and properly understood is undermined. Without the Church, the Scripture is no more defensible than if it had one day fallen out of the sky.
The Catholic Context
In regards to the proper understanding of the Bible, Scripture is most properly understood within the context of the Catholic faith. Apart from this faith, Scripture can be distorted and misunderstood, as 2 Peter 3:16 tells us when he warns that “the ignorant and the unstable distort [the Scriptures] to their own destruction.” The words translated “ignorant” (Greek oi amatheis) and “unstable” (Greek astriktos) do not convey their full meaning in English. These words really mean “the undiscipled” and “those who do not remain in the apostolic teaching.” In other words, the people who distort the meaning of Scripture are those who are not discipled by the Church and do not remain in the Church’s teaching. Notice how Peter’s words presumes that there exists a master/disciple succession that comes from the apostles and a rule of faith (regula fidei) that must be continuously held. Without these two factors, the proper meaning of the Scriptures is in peril.
The Task of Interpretation
“The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 85
Gary G. Michuta is an author, speaker and teacher on Catholic apologetics and evangelism.
Any Catholic who spends time reading popular atheist literature will soon encounter the claim that the Gospels are works of myth and legend, devoid of much or any historical fact….
Any Catholic who spends time reading popular atheist literature will soon encounter the claim that the Gospels are works of myth and legend, devoid of much or any historical fact.
One of my favorite examples of this popular — that is, both non-scholarly and widespread — atheist ignorance comes from a filmmaker, Brian Flemming, who recently produced a documentary titled “The God Who Wasn’t There.” The documentary, he explained, is to show that the “biblical Jesus” is a myth, created whole cloth by superstitious, unlearned early Christians. Asked to summarize the evidence for his stance, Flemming said: “It’s more a matter of demonstrating a positive than a negative, and the positive is that early Christians appeared not to have believed in a historical Jesus. If the very first Christians appear to believe in a mythical Christ, and only later did ‘historical’ details get added bit by bit, that is not consistent with the real man actually existing. … I would say that he is a myth in the same way that many other characters people believed actually existed. Like William Tell is most likely a myth…. Of course, [Jesus] is a very important myth.”
“All I’m saying,” Flemming added, “is that [Jesus] doesn’t exist, and it would be a healthy thing for Christians to look at the Bible as a work of fiction from which they can take inspiration rather than, you know, the authoritative word of God.”
Actually, it would be helpful and healthy if skeptics like Flemming would put in the time and effort demanded by the evidence. As examples of such efforts, I’ll mention just three recent, impressive works: “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony,” by Richard Bauckham (Eerdmans, 2006); “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach,” by Michael R. Licona (InterVarsity, 2010); and “The Historical Jesus of the Gospels,” by Craig S. Keener (Eerdmans, 2012). These detailed, lengthy works highlight three basic facts.
First, the Gospels were written by men who knew the difference between myth and historical fact. The author of the Second Letter of Peter makes this abundantly clear: “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty” (1:16). The opening verses of Luke’s Gospel shows that Luke sought “to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us,” so that “you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received” (Lk 1:1-4). Thus the Gospels and other New Testament texts include numerous references to secular rulers (Caesar Augustus, Pontius Pilate, Herod, et al.), as well as Jewish leaders (Caiaphas, Ananias) — names unlikely to be used inaccurately or even show up in a “myth.” As such, the historical content of these works should be judged not against mythologies, but against other first-century works of history.
Second, the Gospels are a combination of biography and history following the structure and approach taken by Greek and Roman authors to the same literary genres. The German historian Martin Hengel wrote that Luke was “a historian and theologian who needs to be taken seriously. His account always remains within the limits of what was considered reliable by the standards of antiquity.” As Keener shows, ancient historians — including the Gospel writers — had high standards for accuracy, even if they didn’t always employ the same techniques as modern historians. For example, ancient historians sometimes changed chronologies, or presented their works in a topical, not chronological, manner.
Third, the uniqueness of the Gospels has less to do with the literary form and much more to do with the radical identity of Jesus Christ. And this, really, is the ultimate point of conflict. Atheists begin with the philosophical assumption that there can be no divine intervention in history. Thus the Gospels must be myth. Christian historians, however, while acknowledging their belief in God, are willing to begin by examining the Gospels as historical texts, and then follow the evidence where it leads. In doing so, they are being truly open-minded.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight. He and his family live in Eugene, Ore.