Starting this Wednesday, I will be leading our weekly Bible study in looking at the Gospel of Matthew. This comes after spending about a year, I believe, looking at the Penteteuch -- and at that, most of our attention was on Genesis, Exodus and Numbers -- i.e., the narrative portions.
I very much enjoy doing this, but I am not particularly scholarly. I can tap into other scholarly resources, but my method is to try to look closely at the text, to read the text as a continuous narrative if at all possible, to focus more on the text itself than what purports to be behind the text (i.e., where it came from, how it came to be) or "in front of" the text -- i.e., the hearer or reader.
I'm not saying those are bad things, they are matters I'll deal with as well.
Rather, I'm saying that -- in my judgment -- a lot of discussion of Scripture gets out of balance in these areas, putting the actual text secondary to suppositions and reconstructions of the text's origins.
If you suspect I am skeptical of the various theories involving multiple authors/editors of various books of the Bible, you are correct.
I readily acknowledge people who are a lot smarter than I am have studied these matters extensively, and make very knowledgeable arguments for four sources for the first five books of the Bible, for three Isaiahs, and for multiple sources to the first three Gospels. They may be right. But we don't have "Q" (the supposed, but so-far non-existent textual source behind much of the content of Matthew, Mark and Luke), but we do have the four Gospels themselves.
It certainly may be that multiple folks produced, say, Genesis. But here's the method I learned in the seminary, from Father Tim Schehr, who still teaches there, and writes commentaries on Scripture in various places, including the Catholic Telegraph (the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati). He said: try to read the text as a unity; where you find unevenness, supposed contradictions, before you say, "it's because of editing," see if you can solve the problem. Because -- if you do eliminate the "unevenness" -- then what need do you have of a theory of multiple hands, including an editor?
Here's my other argument on this theory of a text being the product of several authors, which a "redactor" (i.e., editor), stitched together. But to give my argument, I have to explain how this idea of redaction is usually introduced into a question of Scripture...
You will have a text where there seems to be some inconsistency or, as Fr. Schehr says, "unevenness." And the explanation of the multiple-hand theorists is, "ah, that's where you can see the work of the redactor -- see, this part comes from the "J" author, this from the "E" author." In the notes for the Catholic Study Bible -- for example, the note on Genesis 6:5-8:22 -- you see this frequently.
But, here's my problem.
Explaining the unevenness as the work of an editor is really no explanation at all, because all you are doing is replacing a sloppy author with a sloppy editor -- how is that an explanation? The "problem" -- the author seems to say one thing, then he seems to repeat himself, or he says something shortly thereafter that conflicts with what he said just before. Hmm, says the scholar -- the author couldn't have been so inattentive to his work...must have been multiple sources, which an editor stitched together."
Um, except that this latter editor was also inattentive, was he not? Why--in his editing, didn't he notice the very same inconsistencies which the author could never have been responsible for? Wasn't this editor at least as interested in the text as our latter-day scholars? So doesn't it seem unreasonable to suppose that this editor would fail to notice what is so obvious to the scholars?
So, in the end, you haven't really explained the unevenness at all.
Please don't read me as saying more than I am. I am not asserting, matter-of-fact, that multiple authorship did not happen in the Scriptures. It may well have.
But the idea that a "school" or "community" produced any of the books of the Bible seems very far-fetched. How often does a committee or a group produce riveting narrative? Far more likely, I think, that a single individual produced particular texts -- even if a "redactor" knit several of them together. And as I showed already, this approach explains very little to me, so it simply fails as an explanation.
Let me say one thing more, about the Gospels in particular. There is a fair amount of nonsense tossed off about the Gospels, even by people who really should know better.
The idea that each Gospel presents a very different Jesus. The idea that only John's Gospel presents a transcendant Jesus, while the others present him as very much this-world. The idea that Jesus being God is something read into the Gospels, by the Church, rather than being deeply imbedded in the warp-and-woof of the Gospels -- all four of them -- which is what I think is manifest.
What often happens with the Gospels, I'm afraid, is some people (DREs and liturgists and other "church professionals") attend a "workshop" or "seminar" on one of the Gospels, or all four of them, and they pick up some eye-catching ideas and slogans, that seems like the "big news" that "really explains everything" -- and that's pretty much all they have. I don't really blame them, because their teachers themselves may have failed to do their jobs well. And, as someone who was asked, last year, to do a one-hour talk on all three of the first three Gospels, I can attest that it's pretty hard to give an "overview," and very tempting to offer glib bromides.
So you have a lot of people running about, repeating a lot of incomplete ideas, and some outright nonsense, because that's what they were told.
They turn a question into a dogmatic assertion: "everyone knows the Apostle Matthew didn't write the Gospel of Matthew." Well, no -- we have reason to raise questions, and it's very possible that he didn't write it. But we are far from knowing that for sure. So, till we do, the simpler explanation (have you ever seen the charts representing the multiple-source theories of the origins of the Gospels?) still is very respectable.
Anyway, tonight we'll do something truly radical. We'll simply read the Gospel, and see what we can find in the text; with reference to other Scripture texts, insofar as Matthew himself taps into them.
At St. Boniface Parish, in the school, starting at 7 pm. Folks in the northern suburbs of Cincinnati can still just make it, if you leave now...