Professor Trabbic's Response, "Reading in the Spirit"

Professor Joseph Trabbic has responded to my comments on his blog post "Aquinas and Modern Biblical Exegesis". I am honored by such a significant response, "Reading in the Spirit: A Response to John Martens,"and I will read it carefully before responding. On first reading there is much with which I agree, but I would encourage you all to read it and see what you think. I think this conversation will continue for a while, and happily in the best spirit of scholarship and the Church, to learn from each other. More to come!

John W. Martens


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Leo Zanchettin
7 years 7 months ago

I've wrestled with these kinds of questions myself-usually because other folks have been so critical of the historical-critical method-and have come to realize that this is a false dichotomy.

As John Adams famously said, facts are stubborn things. The biblical scholar must use all the tools of research at his or her disposal-and use them objectively. Any other approach runs the risk of ideological contamination. If historical research and competent literary criticism uncover facts relevant to a given passage of Scripture, we should feel duty-bound to accept them and find ways to integrate them into our understanding of that passage. They don't have to become the hermeneutical be-all and end-all. But neither should we ignore them or explain them away because they threaten our faith. And yes, there are Catholic apologists who engage in this type of intellectual dishonesty, and all I can do is shake my head in sadness.

Ultimately, all truths derive from the One Truth. At least on a philosophical level, there can never be a conflict between what the sciences reveal and the genuine rule of faith. We learned that with the Galileo episode. We just need to apply the same principle to historical and literary research. Granted, these are "softer" sciences than geology and astronomy, but they remain sciences nonetheless.

As for me, I welcome anything uncovered by sociologists, historians, and textual critics. I enjoy the challenge of seeing God's hand in all that is revealed. And I love the way every new bit of data has the potential to both broaden and deepen my faith.
Edward Stansfield
7 years 7 months ago
Leo Z.:
I would certainly agree with President Adams’s dictum that “facts are stubborn things,” but the expression is not really applicable to most of what passes for “historical criticism” in biblical studies. Most of the assertions biblical scholars have made about the bible in the name of “historical criticism” are highly theoretical claims that don’t have hard, factual evidence to back them up. Furthermore, the “biblical scholars” who have engaged in “historical criticism” are not historians. They have degrees in dead languages or theology, but they almost never have degrees in history.
For example: I once attended a bible study meeting at my local parish. At the meeting, the priest told us that Mark was probably written sometime around 70 AD, with Matthew and Luke being written a few years later in the 80’s and John coming after that in the 90’s.
During the intermission in the meeting the priest and I were talking over by the refreshment table and I asked him the question. I asked him the obvious question, the question any historian would ask:
“If you saw a guy who rose from the dead, would you wait 30 or 40 years to write it down?”
I got no answer to the obvious question. He got a good chuckle out of it and definitely found it amusing, but the priest made no attempt to answer the obvious question. The obvious question defies any rational answer except, “No.” Even if we rephrase the question, it still cannot get an answer favorable to the “historical critics.” For instance, if we ask: “If you saw a guy who rose from the dead, would you wait 30 or 40 years before entrusting someone else with the task of writing it down?” the question still does not get a “yes” response favorable to the theoretical estimates of the authorship of the gospels that the priest supposed.
Edward Stansfield
7 years 7 months ago
The opinion that the first three gospels (called “synoptic”) were written after 70 AD did not come from a historian or archaeologist and no historical “facts” or “data” were used to create these estimates. The estimates came originally from Hermann Samuel Reimarus a “philosophe” of the enlightenment who lived and died (1694-1768) before archaeology existed, at a time when little was known about ancient history. He based his claims about the authorship and date of the gospels ENTIRELY on two assumptions:
1. He assumed that Jesus did not rise from the dead (which is how he got around the problem of the aforementioned “obvious question”)
2. And he assumed that Jesus could not possibly have predicted the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD roughly 40 years in advance (as Jesus did in all four gospels). Therefore he claimed that the gospel writers wrongly attributed the prediction to Jesus after the event took place.
The historical evidence does not support either assumption. The ancient fathers of the church uniformly believed that the synoptic gospels were written earlier than Reimarus estimated. The church fathers all said that Matthew was written around 50 or 60 AD with Luke being written around 60 AD. Two of the fathers believed Mark to be written during Saint Peter’s lifetime in the 50’s or 40’s with only one church father claiming a later authorship of Mark after Peter had died.
In particular, Reimarus’s second assumption runs counter to the historical facts because the Christians of the early Jerusalem church of the 60’s AD acted as if they knew the city was going to fall because they evacuated the city long before the Roman army arrived to besiege it. No other evidence (apart from the two assumptions) has ever been raised to support late authorship of the synoptic gospels.
While there is nothing unorthodox about attributing the gospels to dates that are later than traditionally accepted, the assumptions behind these estimates are unorthodox and tend to undermine the faith.
Edward Stansfield
7 years 6 months ago
It seems to me (if you’re curious about such things) that the material distinctively common to Matthew and Luke (called “Q” by German scholars) probably never existed as a separate document since none of the writings of the early church mention such a thing. If the “Q” material has a special source it is probably an oral source rather than a written document. By “oral source” I mean an apostle other than Peter, John or Matthew who happened to be hanging around in Antioch in the mid first century. Such an unnamed apostle could have been there to tell Luke what to write and remind Matthew of what he should write.
Keep in mind the “scholars” are not really historians and they don’t really know the historical context of the bible as well as they think they do. A few (the Jesus seminar) seem to have a profit motive. They often publish books that make “shocking” non-traditional, counterintuitive claims about Jesus in order to scandalize the public and sell books, so they can make money.
Eban’s claim that Jesus wouldn’t have called the Pharisees “whited sepulchers” is a case in point. The tombs or sepulchers were “whited” or whitewashed so they could appear good on the outside and still be bad (or not kosher, unclean) on the inside. By making this claim Jesus was acknowledging that the Pharisees had a good or whitewashed reputation, while arguing that it was undeserved, and they were really bad on the inside. Likewise, there was probably never a Jewish pogrom against Christians (although one ancient historian mentioned a Jewish “riot” in Rome) but ancient and modern historians have found a few instances of Jewish persecution of Christians in the first century. Paul and John were not making it up.
While it is not historically possible to prove how many of Jesus’s words from the gospels he actually spoke (since there were no tape recorders back then) we can know the words the four evangelists were inspired to write. Because they are in the gospels they are theologically authoritative, while the speculations of scholars are not.
If you take a look at The Real Jesus by Luke Timothy Johnson or Who Was Jesus by N. T. Wright, you will find that A. N. Wilson’s work has been pretty much debunked by now. Endless books have been published over the past 20 years refuting the Jesus Seminar. You could find a few of them in any large bookstore.
Edward Stansfield
7 years 6 months ago
Essentially the “obvious question” I asked in a previous posting argues that there had to be at least one gospel written before Paul’s writings. Look at it this way: the four gospels explain the story of the life and teaching of Christ while the other 23 New Testament documents offer a series of interpretations of what the life of Christ means for the church and for us. The gospels give us the story, the other documents give us the interpretation. Now have you ever known the interpretation of a story to be written before the story was written? In 5000 years of written human literature, I’ve never heard of such a thing. The story is always written first and the interpretation is written later. Therefore the first document of the New Testament to be written had to be a gospel.
Now look at it from Paul’s point of view. How is he supposed to go all over the ancient Mediterranean telling all these people to believe in Jesus if he never met Jesus in person and he didn’t have a written gospel in his possession? It doesn’t really make sense. In order to do this he would have to have a written gospel with him on his journeys.
Look at it from the perspective of the people in the Pauline churches. When Paul gets up and leaves to go to the next town, how is the church he jest established supposed to continue to function in his absence without a written gospel in their possession? That doesn’t make sense either. Paul must have given written gospels to the churches he founded. Therefore there must have been a gospel written at an earlier time.
Edward Stansfield
7 years 6 months ago
I believe I mentioned once before that I am a historian. I am not “denigrating” history. I am explaining it.  One of the essays you recommended was called, 'Jesus and Critical History' but there’s no such thing as, “critical history.” A theologian made up the phrase, not a historian. You pointed out that Reimarus’ claims had been dismantled, but I must ask, “Why are they still being followed?”
You acknowledge that there is a “lack of evidence” for the dating of the gospels as widely taught in the church. However, what I am saying is that the evidence IS the history. I realize that there are many books out there that theologians have published over the years that offer the reader dates for when books of the bible were written. However, history is not just about dates. It’s about cause and effect, change over time, perspective and motivation. Most importantly, it has to be supported by hard evidence. If my “obvious question” remains unanswered then history is not being done because history is about answering the tough questions about the past.
History is about perspective. In my last posting, I pointed out that the widely assumed dating of the gospels (at least among most Catholic scholars) doesn’t make sense from the perspective of Jesus’ disciples and other followers (in the first paragraph), doesn’t make sense from Paul’s perspective (second paragraph) and doesn’t make sense from the perspective of the Pauline churches (third paragraph) or other churches established outside Judea. Careful, logical examination of the three perspectives demonstrates that the early church had no reason to continue to rely on oral tradition when they could have written this stuff down, especially when the church expanded outside Judea. Oral traditions would have been inadequate to sustain churches established outside the area where Jesus lived, preached and was personally known. 
Your argument regarding story and interpretation points out that some interpretation of Jesus’ story is included in the gospels, which is true. However, the other 23 New Testament documents are still largely works of interpretation of a story they do not tell. Thus, you are still putting the interpretation before the story, thereby putting the effect before the cause. This is a paradox and a historical error.
While tradition is an important concept in Catholic theology, oral traditions are not history. As one French scholar said, “Pas de documents, pas d’histoire.” You said that there was a “preference for the oral tradition,” but is there any evidence of that? Scholars can always speculate about whether or not there were oral traditions and what such oral traditions may have included. But such speculations cannot be magically transformed into history.


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