What do we really know about Jesus as a historical character? The question sounds strange to those who have never come face to face with the modern critical analysis of the New Testament. Such people are inclined to say that we learn about Christ in “the Bible,” and that the Bible is either true or false. Indeed, they often believe that unless every detail of the Bible is absolutely accurate as history the whole collection of sacred Scriptures is entirely worthless. It is therefore necessary to say something as to the meaning of “criticism” when applied to Holy Scripture.
Textual criticism: The last twelve verses of S. Mark’s Gospel
There are three kinds of criticism: Textual, Literacy, and Historical.
The aim of Textual criticism is to discover from among the multitude of manuscript copies what was the original form in which some particular document appeared. The progress made in the knowledge of ancient manuscripts between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries was one of the two reasons which made necessary the issue of the Revised Version in 1881 and 1884. The changes made in that version are partly due to the desire for a more accurate translation of the Hebrew and Greek, but partly also to the fact that the discovery of more ancient manuscripts than those which were known to the sixteenth-century translators had thrown much light on the original text. It had become clear that mistakes had arisen in the text of the Scriptures for the simple reason that copyists had sometimes failed to be careful enough in accurately transcribing the text which they were copying. These mistakes had been recopied by other scribes, and in very many cases a false tradition had grown up. The most important discovery of this kind of criticism has been that the last twelve verses of S. Mark do not really belong to the Gospel as S. Mark wrote it at all. The original ending, if there ever was one, is lost, and the verses as printed in the Authorised Version are an attempt to supply what is lacking.
Literary criticism: What other sources did the evangelists use?
Literary criticism (often called Higher criticism) goes a stage further back. The literary critic asks where the author got his material. When we have discovered the true form of a book of Scripture as it left the pen of, say, S. Luke, we have still to ask whether the author got his information from other book . In the case of S. Luke, it is clear from his own words [S. Luke 1:2] that he himself was not an eyewitness of the events which he records, and we naturally wish to know on whose testimony he relied when he asserted that he had “traced the course of all things accurately from the first.” [S. Luke 1:3].
Comparing the four Gospels
Now a comparison of the Gospels from this point of view yields certain important results. First, it is clear that the Fourth Gospel is quite independent of the other three, except, indeed, in the negative sense that the author of it seems to have been determined to leave out almost everything that he found already recorded in one of the other Gospels. Even in the few cases where he does record something that is to be found in one of the first three Gospels, he does so in his own way and in his own unmistakable language. Occasionally it looks as though he had intended to correct misapprehensions which had arisen from the narratives of his predecessors.
The supplementary Gospel
One result, then, from the literary criticism of the Fourth Gospel is that the author of it knew the other three Gospels, or at any rate two of them, but refrained from reproducing them. The events and the teaching which he records are both alike fresh, and in some cases their importance is so great that we can only conclude that they were unknown to the other evangelists. The Fourth Gospel is the supplementary Gospel.
The synoptic Gospels
But when we come to compare the first three with each other all this is altered. They deal very largely with the same events, and to a considerable extent record the same teaching. Moreover, their actual wording is so similar that it is quite impossible to suppose that they are absolutely independent authorities. They are composed on a uniform plan, so much so that large parts of them can be written out in three parallel columns. Obviously there is a very close literary connection between the three. For this reason they are known as the “Synoptic” Gospels – Gospels which take the same general view of the events.
Which is the earliest of the synoptic Gospels?
Further, if we do set them out in parallel, we shall find that the shortest of the three – S. Mark – is almost completely repeated in S. Matthew, and that quite half of it is reproduced in S. Luke. It seems obvious that the writers of the first and third Gospels (“first” and “third” – i.e., in the order in which they are printed) had seen and made use of the second. Our first examination, then, suggests that the earliest of the three, on which the others very largely depend, is S. Mark.
There is little reason for doubting that in this Gospel we have an original source written by John Mark himself, probably within a year or two of the martyrdom of S. Peter and S. Paul in Rome. Nor is there any improbability in the very early tradition that the Gospel represents in the main the witness of S. Peter himself.
It must not, of course, be supposed that S. Matthew and S. Luke have simply copied out S. Mark. On the contrary, they show considerable freedom in the use which they make of him. S. Luke in particular departs from him again and again, and apparently has access to other authorities to which he assigns an even greater weight.
But a little more research reveals this further fact. A great deal of the matter which is not in S. Mark is found in both S. Matthew and S. Luke. This suggests – and again the suggestion seems to correspond with fact – that these two evangelists had access to some other document to which both of them attached the highest importance, or, if not a single document, then a set of traditions which were gradually crystallising into literary form. This material consists almost entirely of teaching, with very little narrative, and we find that there is an extraordinary difference in the way in which they have fitted it into their historical framework. For instance, in S. Matthew a great mass of it is grouped together into the “Sermon on the Mount,” while in S. Luke much of the same teaching is found in different contexts. The inference drawn by the critics is that this second authority, used by the first and third evangelists, took the form, not of a connected narrative, but simply of a collection of our Lord’s sayings, on which they have drawn as they thought good.
Document Q (Quelle)
The existence of this early collection of the sayings of Jesus is, of course, purely conjectural, but it would be agreed by almost all scholars that the facts point to some such conjecture. And it is commonly held that this document, generally known as “Q” [i.e., Quelle, the German word for Source], is the earliest source of our knowledge of the historical Christ. It seems that it must have fallen into literary shape as early as 50 A.D., and presumably represents the first attempt to supplement the oral tradition and scattered manuscript notes on which the Church had hitherto relied.
S. Matthew’s Gospel
We are still left with the parts of S. Matthew and S. Luke which are peculiar to those Gospels; and as regards the former, it is very difficult to guess the sources from which this tradition is ultimately derived. We cannot feel much confidence in any direct connection between the Apostle S. Matthew and the Gospel which bears his name, except, indeed, that it is possible that he may be responsible for that collection of Christ’s teaching which we call “Q.” All that we can say is that this Gospel was accepted as authoritative by about the year 85, and that it appears to represent the traditions of the churches of Jerusalem and Antioch.
S. Luke’s Gospel
But with regard to the matter peculiar to S. Luke we are in a very different position. There is every reason to think that S. Luke was really the compiler of the Gospel which bears his name, and the actual author of at least a great part of it; and that being so, we can see that he would naturally have access to sources of great value. As the chosen friend and travelling companion of S. Paul during the greater part of his journeyings, he must have been in the way of learning all that was valuable in the traditions of the Church from Jerusalem to Rome.
We need not follow up these questions of literary criticism. Our subject is not the Gospels, but their Hero, Jesus Christ. It has only been necessary to go as far as we have gone because a knowledge of these first outlines of higher criticism is needed when it comes to discussing questions of historical fact. What we want for our present purpose is “the certainty concerning the things wherein ” we” were instructed.” [S. Luke 1:4]
K. D. Mackenzie, M.A., Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1927
To be continued