Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Bible Study on Matthew

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...


Mary S said...

Hope the study went well, and everyone learned as the Holy Spirit taught through you. Just happened across your post, and wondered if you have ever read "The Art of Biblical Narrative" by Robert Alter. He is Jewish, I think, and the book deals only with the OT/Hebrew Scriptures, but he set me free from worries about all those theories. He so clearly sees the unity and integrity of Scripture from a deeply learned literary point of view. I found it in the public library.

Gabe said...

I'm taking an excellent Old Testament class right now at Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. The class is great; I was surprised to learn that the Bible is completely irerrant not only in faith and morals but also in history and science. This is dogmatic teaching and the Pontifical Biblical Commission has constantly repeated it. Yet I did not know that before taking the class. However, it makes perfect sense.

The required texts for the class are Scott Hahn's A Father Who Keeps His Promises, A Guide to the Bible by Antonio Fuentes, and The Old Testament Documents by Walter Kaiser.

Anonymous said...

Father, are you intending to put your notes online?

Mrs Jackie Parkes MJ said...

Sounds like a great talk!

Mrs Jackie Parkes MJ said...

Do you mind adding my blog Fr?

Father Martin Fox said...


Sorry, I really have no notes to post, other than what's in my Bible.


One of these days, I will update my links, and I will be happy to add you. Basically, my only condition is you link me in return.

Theocoid said...

Hi, Fr. Martin.

Given that most graduate courses in scripture take, at times, weeks to cover a single book, it's presumptuous to think one could gain all knowledge of a Gospel in a single weekend seminar.

I would encourage you to look at the four senses of scripture as a means for explaining how we should read the Bible. While it begins with the "literal" meaning of the text(a phrase that, in itself, must be properly understood), it moves onto the the three spiritual senses that enrich our understanding and make the immediate text more than just a single historical incident.

Anonymous said...

I think that there's a lot to be said for your point of view, Father.

One of the great ideas of Catholicity is that God cares as much about the details when it comes to us, as about the cosmic details of universe. There is a reason the gospels are as they are. Are we to parse them and try to understand them, yes. But we should never lose sight of the fact that they are as they are. There is merit in just reading them, of course.

We shouldn't try to say they aren't true on all the levels they are. Sometimes close reading, like the scholars do, misses the forest for the trees in a big way.

Steven Cornett said...

A lot of what the popular "Bible Scholars" put out is a lot of non-sense. They seem to forget that some of the meanings of what's in the Bible stories aren't necessarily in the literalistic sense. One has to dig a bit deeper.

The story of Noah and the flood come to mind. Gabe may be able to explain some of this better, but it seems that one correspondence to the flood is the deluge of the Black Sea, about 7-8K years ago. Fundamentalists, as Wikipedia points out, read Noah literalisticly and so reject this as the source event.

But if you see the Earth as the place where the ancestors of Israel were located (Judah is identified prophetically with the Earth, while the seas are identified with the nations), you find that a regional deluge can fit the event quite well. Something this big you have to imagine is going to be remembered.

Does that sound reasonable or am I out on a limb here?