I. The Question on the Historical Authenticity of the Gospels. 1. The Beginning of the Criticism. 2. The Criticism carried out by the Enlightenment and the Rationalists, and the Reaction of Liberal Theology. 3. Rudolf Bultmann’s View and its Following Developments. 4. Searching for a Proper Methodology. - II. Criteria for Evaluating the Authenticity of the Gospels: the Comparative Method. 1. The Criterion of Discontinuity. 2. The Criterion of Continuity or Conformity. 3. A Synthetic Assessment of this Method. - III. From what is Historical to what is Authentic: the “Style” of Jesus - IV. The Sources which provided the Material for the Gospels and the Criterion of Multiple Assertions. 1. How the four Gospels were formed. 2. The Criterion of Multiple Assertions. 3. Evaluation of this Criterion in the light of the Presence of a General Consensus in the Early Christian Community. 4. The Historical Root of the “Existential Charge” transmitted by the Gospels. - V. A Path for Approaching Jesus. 1. Going Backwards: from the Gospels of the Church to the Gospel “of Jesus”. 2. Going Onwards: from the Pre-Paschal Eye-Witnesses to the Gospels. - VI. Reading the Gospels in the Spirit and in the Church. 1. The Dogmatic Principle. 2. The Literary Principle. 3. The Historical Principle.
Christianity, having arisen from within the Hebrew religious tradition, has in Jesus of Nazareth its founder. The nucleus, indeed, of the Christian proclamation or “Gospel,” consists of his very deeds and teachings. These deeds and teachings of Jesus were widely diffused by his disciples and those who saw him, whether from that which they saw and heard, or from that ever more profound understanding of the experiences they shared with him, and in a special way, the experience of his death and resurrection. The Christian message proclaims the definitive fulfillment of the revelation which God had made of Himself to the people of Israel, as Creator of the universe and Lord of history, a fulfillment realized by the Incarnation of the Son of God and the sending forth of the Holy Spirit into the world. The relationships between God, the world, and humanity set forth in the Scriptures of Israel, have a new light cast upon them by the doctrine of Jesus and the doctrine on Jesus, whose Incarnation is closely bound to the meaning and truth of all of creation.
Because of its relation with the whole of creation, the Incarnation of the Word, and therefore, the mystery of Jesus Christ, plays a specific role in the encounter between Christian revelation and a scientific understanding of the world. The problem of the historical access to the human life of Jesus and to his deeds furthermore is a classic topic regarding the relationship between faith and science. The foundational sources for the study of such an access to Jesus’ life are the “Gospels,” documents made up of the oral preaching of the apostles, having then been put into writing by some of them or by their disciples. Also, when one approaches the figure of Jesus of Nazareth with historical-scientific categories, one must bear in mind the simultaneous presence of two inseparable elements, that of the event and that of the mystery. The first is rooted in the historical, geographical, religious and cultural concreteness of his humanity; the second in the confession of the divine origin of Jesus, as Son of God, consubstantial to the Father, and to the faith to which this confession appeals.
I. The Question on the Historical Authenticity of the Gospels
The Gospels have come to us as four brief documents written in Greek, attributed by the Christian tradition to four authors, two of which, Matthew and John, belonged to the “group of twelve,” the apostles chosen by name by Jesus (cf. Mt 10:2-4; Mk 3:16-19; Lk 6:13-16). The other two authors, Mark and Luke, were known as disciples of two other apostles, respectively Peter and Paul of Tarsus. Even taking into account the diversity of style, three of the four (Mt, Mk, and Lk), known as “synoptics,” relate an almost parallel narration (Gr. synoptikós, from the verb synoráo, “to look at together,” “to catch by one glimpse,” whereas the fourth (Jn) develops narrations which are in part original, dwelling upon at greater length than the synoptics the discourses of Jesus and the theology which lies therein. The narration of the facts of the passion and death of Jesus in Jerusalem is without a doubt the focal point of the four documents, which can be considered as a “great and gradual preparation” leading up to his passion and death. Each of the four Gospels end with the narrations concerning his resurrection on Easter Sunday and with the apparitions of the Risen One which follow. The Gospels have the form of a proclamation (Gr. kerygma) of joy and salvation (Gr. euanghélion, i.e., “good news”). They pass on a content of a rich moral value, with the quality of a “proclamation of the Kingdom of God and of his justice.” A kingdom centered upon the teachings and example of Jesus, of whom they affirm the divinity, his origin in the bosom of God the Father and his being sent into the world as the redeemer and savior of humankind. The dating of the most ancient codices containing the entire text (the Sinaitic and Vatican codices) trace them back to the 4th century; but, there are also papyruses going back to the 2nd century (papyrus of Chester Beatty) and fragments dating back between the end of the 1st century and the beginning of the 2nd.
1. The Beginning of the Criticism. Although Christianity has always been concerned about the historical value of the Gospels, as one example of its attention paid to history, the criticism of the Gospels’ historical authenticity can be considered as a typically modern problem. Just as recent as two centuries ago, even before the Enlightenment, Christianity had always unanimously and peacefully held that the four Gospels faithfully recount to us the life of Jesus. As testified by the most ancient witnesses, two preoccupations animated the Fathers of the Church: to demonstrate the link between each Gospel and one single author (“personalize the author”) and that these authors were well informed and honest (“to accredit the author”). Although in the Patristic era, the historical truthfulness of the Gospels was not called into question, there were several relevant examples of a critical attitude. For example, the apologist Tatian (2nd century), in light of the divergences between one evangelist and the other, wrote around the year 150 the Diatessaron, consisting of the four gospels fused into one sole book in order to demonstrate the perfect concordance of them and obtain an harmonious account of the life of Jesus. Already in the 3rd century, Origen (ca. 185-254) confronted the hermeneutical problem of biblical interpretation and developed (not without excess) the method of the allegorical reading, which had begun in Judaism with Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. - 50 A.D.). For Origen, the Scriptures were not written down to tell us about the tales of antiquity, but rather for our salvific instruction, and thus we can understand the perennial actuality of that which we read. Even St. Augustine (354-430) found himself needing to resolve the problem of the variances within the Gospels. In his work, De consensus evangelistarum (400), close to the “concordist” solution, he repeatedly insists that in the Gospels it is necessary to seek, not the phrases which are strictly speaking the true and proper words of Jesus (ipsissima verba Christi), but rather the overall meaning of his sayings. Another great principle formulated by Augustine is that of the theological intention of the evangelist: one need not look in the Gospels for anything other than that which the one who was speaking wanted to say, i.e., his intention. Therefore, one must always bear in mind the way of speaking (genus locutionum) (cf. De consensu evangelistarum, 27-29: PL 34,1090-1092): such a criterion is very close to that of the “literary genres” of contemporary exegesis.
With regard to the Gospels, the attitude of the Fathers and of the medieval theologians, although marked by such precious intuitions as those of Augustine, was one of simple and spontaneous trust. They did not suspect in the least the possibility that the materials passed on might have been chosen, gathered into groups, and oriented before being gathered into their final redaction. Even among the adversaries of the faith, one notes the absence of a true internal criticism —a criticism, that is, departing from the form and from the history intrinsic to the gathered material— that by means of the systematic use of appropriate techniques seeks out the possible sources of the Gospels, their reciprocal relations, their level of reliability. The pagan polemicists, Celsus (2nd century) and Porphyrius (3rd century) denied the credibility of the Gospels based about certain aspects of their content, as for example the possibility of miracles and therefore based upon formulations of a philosophical nature, not on account of reasons derived from the historical and literary criticism of the texts.
The great interest of the protestant Reform of the Bible was also more dogmatic than critical. The reformers, who separated themselves from the Church of Rome, spoke of sola Scriptura, whose authority, independent of any other mediation, will further on become ever more exalted. A good deal of Protestants of the 17th century end up considering as untouchable the sacred texts: in the Scriptures, everything came to be considered as “inspired,” in the radical sense of “dictated directly by God,” including the very commas and accents... Such an attitude of an all-out defense certainly reflected a jealous respect for the Scriptures, but ended up impeding any type of critical-scientific work upon the holy books. In conclusion, in this long period of about eighteen centuries, a real and proper criticism, established as a principle of research and applied with scientific methodology, was lacking.
2. The Criticism carried out by the Enlightenment and the Rationalists, and the Reaction of Liberal Theology. The initial surfacing of the question about the historical Jesus dates back to the period of the Enlightenment and more precisely to 1778, the year of the publication of the last extract of an ample manuscript of a good 4,000 pages bearing the title The scope of Jesus and that of his disciples. The author, Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), a German deist, a passionate promoter of a natural and philosophical religion, had died ten years earlier not daring to publish the work. The editor, the rationalistic philosopher G.E. Lessing (1729-1781), anonymously gave the work to the printing presses. For the thesis brought forward in the work was indeed revolutionary: the plan of Jesus must be distinguished from the objective of his disciples. Jesus, therefore, had never thought about founding a new religion, nor worked a miracle, and neither spoke of his death or even less of his resurrection. He was a Jewish revolutionary that, just as many of the other subversive men of his era, Judah the Galilean, Theudas, Bar Kochba, had preached the coming of an earthly kingdom and was determined to bring about the liberation of his fellow countrymen from the Roman domination. In other words, he was a political messiah. But his plan failed miserably, as his cry of delusion from the cross bears witness: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mt 27:46).
The “plan” of his disciples, however, was quite different in every regard. Having found themselves before a failure, at that point they were unable to resign themselves to return to Galilee to their previous occupations. They therefore concocted a hoax by stealing the dead body of the master and inventing the story of his resurrection and of his glorious return, in order to be able to gather together followers and adherents for a new religion. It was the disciples therefore who distorted the figure of Jesus, presenting him as "Christ," that is as a religious messiah who, in order to redeem humanity from sin, voluntarily offered himself up to death to then rise again from the dead: this then would be the "Jesus Christ" we find in the Gospels. In his interpretation of the event of Jesus, Reimarus is strongly conditioned by his philosophical a priori of a rationalistic nature, but does not carry out a work of a true literary criticism. Nonetheless, he will be the first to introduce in the Gospels the critical distinction between that which Jesus taught and that which the apostles preached, i.e., between the "true" Jesus and the Christ represented by the Gospels.
It is with David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), however, author of a Life of Jesus (1835) that we witness the first attempt of a modern criticism of the Gospels. Taking up again the dialectical process of Hegel, he held that the proper category for drawing near to the life of Jesus was neither that of the dogmatics of the supernatural (thesis), nor that of natural explanations (antithesis), but rather that of myth (synthesis). For Strauss, myth is none other than the historical covering of the religious ideas of the first Christians, put into use by a young community enthused about its founder, and then tragically devastated by his death. Therefore, the whole supernatural element present in the Gospels is not the conscious and deliberate invention of the first disciples (Reimarus), but rather a collective and unconscious elaboration of the community, and therefore a popular legend. In regards to historical data, Strauss shows himself to be a skeptic and minimalist: it is not important to know that which Jesus was historically: that which is relevant for us is solely his spiritual message of reconciliation between the human and the divine. Here, the path for the thought of Bultmann had already been laid out.
Three years after the work of Strass, C.H. Weisse and C.G. Wilke discovered, based upon the content of the Gospels, the existence of two “source documents”, Mark and the Loghia, i.e., the "sayings of Jesus." A greater part of the material of the Gospels then would be an exposition and development of these two primitive sources. Thus the skepticism of Strauss was scaled down and in the second half of the 19th century a theological current took shape, known as "liberal theology"which set out to reconcile faith with reason by undertaking in depth the so-called "quest on the life of Jesus" (Ger. Leben-Jesu Forschung). The quest sought to "iberate" the image of Jesus from dogmatic encrustations, having formed already during the epoch of the first Christian community and continued in the following periods, "to return to the man Jesus of Nazareth," by reconstructing the exact historical biography and in the end to sketch out his psychological itinerary. From here ushered forth a long series of portraits of Jesus, from that of the sweet dreamer of Galilee (Renan) to that of the romantic who was the perfect archetype of the moral ideal of humanity (Schleiemacher).
Such an optimistic quest, however, was immediately dismantled by Kähler, Wrede and Schweitzer. In a well-known conference of 1892, M. Kähler (1835-1912) proclaimed in a clear and explicit way the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of the Bible, denying the first, i.e., that Jesus of the pure and simple facts of the past which liberal theology was claiming to scientifically reconstruct, and accepting only the Christ of apostolic preaching, the only one who has real meaning for the faith. The Gospels then would not be a fount for putting together an historical biography of Jesus, but rather "a profession of faith in the messianic reality of the crucified one." W. Wrede went on to deny that the Gospel of Mark played the role of a primitive source, and wished to recognize in it the tracts of an elaboration of the community: in the elaboration, the prospective of the “messianic secret of Jesus” would have been introduced, that is the command given to the apostles not to reveal his real identity, thus justifying the fact that his fame would have burst forth after his death. The finishing stroke would come with A. Schweitzer (1875-1965) with the work History of the Quest of the Life of Jesus (1906) in which, starting with Reimarus, he showed with unrelenting sharpness that all of these lives, on the pretext of having been derived from the Gospels, were indeed fictitious representations.In reality, each epoch, each theology, every author was dressing up Jesus with their own clothes: the rationalists described Jesus as the ideal gentleman of the Victorian age; the socialists as the first great social reformer; the idealists as the quintessence of humanity.
The work of Adolph von Harnack (1851-1930) merits to be treated separately. In one of his most famous works, The Essence of Christianity (1900), he dedicated several pages to the historical aspect of the Gospels. His starting point is their "kerygmatic" nature: the Synoptics are books of propaganda and their intention was not the registering of chronicles of facts, but rather the proclamation of faith in Jesus. Therefore, based upon the Gospels one cannot reconstruct a biography of Jesus, although one need not on account of this deny their historical nature. Their historical nature becomes clear in their "archaic character" which distinguishes them from all the other posterior writings, especially on account of the form of narration, so simple and efficacious, and for the Hebrew or Aramaic language which one discovers with facility behind the Greek text. The “fidelity to tradition” also shows the intention of the Evangelists to be rooted in history. After years of patient labors, he returned to the classic positions (Luke depended upon Paul, Mark as the interpreter of Peter...), but within his work, one finds a new sensibility that, in the argumentation of historicity, he places himself more consciously on the level of literary criticism, paying attention to the internal elements of the content of the Gospels.
Up until this point, the position of Catholic theology was essentially based upon an "external criticism," i.e. upon the demonstration of the "literary authenticity" of the Gospels. Classical apologetics developed such a defense according to three classical approaches: a) to show the "integrity" of the text, i.e. the harmonious agreement between the text which has come down to us and the original text; b) "literary authenticity", used to maintain the well-informed character of the original redactors of the Gospels; c) the "historical truthfulness," by showing that the Evangelists not only could tell the truth, but in fact they also did, and with all sincerity. One gradually began to see that such a position ended up being insufficient to offer a full response to the criticisms having been brought forth.
3. Rudolf Bultmann’s View and its Following Developments. Continuing on the path of the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of the faith, several German reformed scholars, after having declared a failure the attempt of reason to arrive at the facts which really took place in the past, opted for faith alone, as being the only way capable of putting us into contact with the Christ living and present in the Church. The greatest exponent of this current of thought was Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), the passionate advocate of an anti-rationalistic stance, and belonging to the Lutheran tradition. In his work, History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921) Bultmann held the historical research of the Gospels to be an impossible, illegitimate, and unnecessary research. Indeed, the research of the history of Jesus is impossible: the Gospels are not an ordered account of eye-witnesses, but posterior creations, having come to light after a long collective gestation (minimally a good forty years after the events took place) at the heart of a believing community which was not intending to preserve, as intact relics, the words and actions of Jesus, but rather desired to leave a witness of their own passionate faith in him. The Gospels are not therefore a history which tell us about the life of Jesus, but solely a kérygma, the proclamation of a profession of faith which puts forth a vision of our life. The historical research is also impossible for yet another reason: on the literary level, the Gospels are presented to us not as organic works, of which an evangelist, to whom the Gospels are respectively attributed, would be responsible for, but rather as an heterogeneous and fragmentary whole, a collection of pieces stuck together or “redactional forms,” from which comes the expression "history of the forms" (Ger. Formgeschichte). Or, if one likes, a collection of individual pearls, later united in a series which has no pretext of being the original order. Having been put together by the first communities, the gospel passages reflect not the history of Jesus but the history of those communities, with their needs, their ideals, their "vital situations."
Beyond impossible, the historical study of Jesus would be, for Bultmann, illegitimate in itself: namely, not only positively impractical, but also theologically unacceptable. If the Gospels are the "word of God," who do we think we are —protests the Lutheran Bultmann— to approach God and ask for Him to give us a guarantee of the credibility of his word? If anything, it is the word itself which puts a question to us, to ask us if we want to believe or not. And what kind of faith would it be of the one who believes only when human reason has decided that one can trust in the word of God? Furthermore, one is dealing with useless studies, in as much as that which the believer knows of Jesus is already essential, namely that he and he alone is the savior of my life and the Lord of history. This is the Jesus that one has need of, the Jesus who is meaningful to the believer, who calls upon and invites one to leave behind the inauthentic existence of the common people to the authentic life of his disciples.
A position as radical as Bultmann’s was sure to draw strong reactions. The most interesting reaction was that which exploded within his own school, right after the end of the Second World War. In a famous conference held on the 20th of October 1953, during a meeting of former students of Bultmann, one of them, Ernst Käsemann, gave way to the refutation of the master’s theses. The path traced out by Käsemann took its place amid the historicist and positivistic stance of liberal theology and the fideistic and anti-historical position of the kerygmatic theology of Bultmann. Käsemann held it to be indispensable to not eliminate the dialectical tension between history and faith: the Christ of the faith and the Jesus of History are, for him, one sole person. If it is true that the historical existence of Jesus can be understood only in light of the resurrection, that "light" in which the Gospels were surely redacted, it is all the more true that Easter cannot be understood without being rooted in and without a reference in regards to the facts which preceded it: either the glorified Lord has the same countenance as that of the Crucified One, or in place of the Nazarene, one substitutes a mysterious, impalpable celestial being.
In agreement with his master, Käsemann held that the historical study, by itself, was insufficient to unveil the profound dimension of Jesus of Nazareth: faith alone allows us to be to catch a glimpse of the Christ in him, the Son of the Living God (cf. Mt 16:16-17). However, contrary to Bultmann, for his disciple the historical study is relevant to the faith itself, because it helps us to be realize that God acted in history before we even became believers. As did the Evangelists, so must we hold ourselves firmly anchored in the history of Jesus to be able to categorically affirm that it is from this history, and not from us, that salvation comes. In synthesis, there are three points by which Käsemann set into motion the beginning of a new phase of exegetical criticism: a) if there is no connection between the Christ of the faith and the Jesus of history, Christianity becomes a myth; b) if the primitive Church had no interest in the "history of Jesus," one cannot explain why the Gospels were written; c) it is our very faith which requires the certainty that the Jesus who walked the earth and the glorified Christ are the same person, otherwise it would not be the faith transmitted by the apostles.
Regarding the topic of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, a current of thought, having diffused itself in the most recent decades among diverse Jewish scholars (Ben Chorin, Flusser, Levinson, Neusner and others) needs to be mentioned. This current of thought, in its acknowledging the reality of the historical-messianic event of which he was the protagonist, tends to consider Jesus as an observant Jew, a just man and member of the people of Israel. On the part of Christians (J.P. Meier, E.P. Sanders, G.T. Stanton and others), set into motion by the provocative question whether Jesus was only a "marginal figure" of Judaism (J.P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, New York 1991-1994) witnessed a corresponding re-evaluation of his "Hebrew roots," as an element of continuity which doesn’t weaken, but rather favors, the understanding of the gospel message. Today, this current of thought is known as the Third Quest on Jesus, to distinguish it from the preceding two phases: the first quest, which was the fruit of the positivism of the 1800’s and early 1900’s, coincides with the refutation of any possible historical access to Jesus; the second quest, more recent, made the possibility of such an access to be based upon "discontinuity," and therefore on the originality of Jesus in regards to the Hebrew context. The third quest instead seeks to base the historicity of the Nazarene and of his doctrine on the "continuity" with the Judaic environment in which He manifested Himself (for a synthesis, cf. Segalla, 1993 and 1995).
The development of such a study was made possible by the discovery of new historical and literary sources, such as the manuscripts of Qumrân, and by the re-evaluation of already known sources, both Judaic and apocryphal. There emerged a vision of the Judaic world of Jesus’ time which helped to better understand Jesus and his religious movement by appreciating the connections with the very sources of the Christian tradition. The opinions, in Jewish circles, are not unanimous: one passes from the personality of a Jesus who is a simple miracle worker, to that of a Master who would be inserted in the stoic-cynical tradition, from that of an eschatological prophet, to that of a Rabbi profoundly engaged in the renewal of the true cult of God. Beyond this disparity of interpretations, one of the most interesting results of this "third quest," whose effective realization —not to be forgotten— is now possible also thanks to the furthering of the Jewish-Christian dialogue in both religious and intellectual fields, is found in all that which helps us to know up close the historical world of Jesus, thereby allowing us to understand with greater historical rigor his deeds and words. One is not dealing with endorsing a mere continuity or parallelism between the Christian message and the Judaic religion, but to understand that the "became flesh" of the Word implies the assumption of a precise religious, historical and cultural context; upon this foundation, comes forth the acknowledgement then that the event of his coming to earth and his divine mystery cannot be “absorbed” by that same context, but remain always astonishingly above.
4. Searching for a Proper Methodology. The discussion raised by the criticism of the historical authenticity of the Gospels helped theology, Catholic in particular, to put into play an apt historiographic methodology to be applied to the specific case of the Gospels. By this time it was clear that a methodology scientifically tenable needed to place side by side with the approach of an "external criticism" that also of an "internal criticism." Indeed, if the first leads to a verification of the reliability of the texts, by examining the information relative to the author, time, place, and circumstances, the second seeks to establish the historical value of the foundational information based upon the intrinsic characteristics of the material brought forth. Once the "most ancient stratum" is reconstructed with the help of the external criticism and of the literary analysis, namely its ancientness, the internal criticism would have to engage itself in the evaluation of whether that information is historically reliable and authentic, by thus entering upon the "question of authenticity." An analysis of the historicity needs to understand both levels: to demonstrate that a document is "historical" in the sense of "ancient," is not equivalent to demonstrating its authenticity in the sense of "conformity and truthfulness regarding the narrated facts."
A history book which narrates the life and deeds of a specific person can be held to be historically true when it faithfully transmits the gestures which render that person "similar" and at the same time "original" in regards to his contemporaries. The first criterion strengthens the rooting of the narration in the culture and context proper to his epoch (which could be well known also thanks to other sources), whereas the second would underline the element proper and singular to him, and for this able to emerge not as a simple archetypal reproduction or merely representative of that culture and of that context. Further, it is also necessary that the description of the person be credible, that he be coherent in himself, in his personality and in his choices. To ask oneself if the Gospels have an historical authenticity means therefore starting to ask oneself if the portrait of Jesus of Nazareth which they trace out more or less presents these gestures of originality, of similarity and of coherence.
II. Criteria for Evaluating the Authenticity of the Gospels: the Comparative Method
1. The Criterion of Discontinuity. The criterion of discontinuity and that of continuity have been seen too often as alternatives. I think, however, that they make up the two principal instruments of a single method: the "comparative method" which proceeds along the lines of a comparison between the information offered by the Gospels and that information which comes from other documents of an authenticity which cannot be doubted. The criterion of discontinuity may thus be set forth: the data which the Gospels relate can be considered authentic (especially when dealing with the words and attitudes of Jesus) when it is irreducible both to the concepts of Judaism and to the concepts of the primitive church (cf. Latourelle, 1994). Judaism and the primitive community of the faithful are the two poles from which "that which one can attribute to Jesus" must be able to emerge regarding that which is simply ascribable to those two contexts.
Before arriving at a "discontinuity" thus understood, one must also take into account a sort of "global discontinuity," that namely for which the Gospels, understood globally, stand out as something which is unique and original regarding all other literature. Already, the literary genre of the Gospels is found on this level of discontinuity. The Gospels cannot be defined as a "biography" of Jesus, but more so as a "testimony" of his life. Nor can they be defined as an "apology" either of the disciples —of whom they bring forward episodes of extraordinary realism, humiliating or simply very little edifying— or of Jesus himself, whose profile is soberly brought forth without emphasis, even at the point of describing extraordinary events. Lastly, they also do not have the form of "doctrinal speculation," which can easily be shown by comparing them to the texts written by Gnostic authors. Even the content presents strong characteristics of uniqueness and originality. If it is true that such content is Christ himself, it is not difficult to embrace the global originality of the person of Jesus: historical research does not easily succeed in classifying him either according to the categories of psychology, or according to the canons of the history of religions, on account of a marked singularity in comparison to the other founders of religions.
The value of the criterion of discontinuity is especially clear in regards to the Judaic background, i.e., of the first of the two poles mentioned above. Jesus exercises an authority over the Sabbath and over the Judaic laws, placing himself beyond the messianic views of his people and by contradicting the expectations. Before the law, Jesus does not act in the manner of the Pharisees (attention to that which is exterior), but reveals its deeper meaning (cf. Mt 5:21-22.27-28), by declaring the true seat to be in the intimacy of the heart (cf. Mt 15:10-20): the new law preached by him not only fulfills the old law, but also surpasses it. No rabbi would have dared to critically confront the Scriptures and Moses (cf. Mt 19:8; Jn 6:32; Jn 8:5-11). Also, the vision of the "Kingdom of God" presented by Jesus is radically diverse from that of the average Jew: the greatness of the awaited Davidic kingdom is united to the humility of the preaching to the poor; the apocalyptic glorification of the Son of Man to the suffering of the Servant of Yahweh. The greatest discontinuity is seen, however, above all in his relationship with God, whom he calls his Father (Abba) and from whom he declares himself to have been sent into the world, with expressions and claims absolutely unprecedented in regards to that which was habitual for the Jews. "We are confronted with something new and unheard of which breaks through the limits of Judaism. Here we see who the historical Jesus was: the man who had the power to address God as Abba and who included the sinners and the publicans in the Kingdom by authorizing them to repeat this one word, 'Abba, dear Father'" (Jeremias, 1965, p. 30).
For that which pertains to the criterion of discontinuity with regards to the canons of the primitive Christian community, one can point to many elements of the Gospel narration: the bafflement of the disciples in front of many declarations or works of Jesus (cf. Mt 19:10; 19:23-25); his coming from Galilee (a messianic community never would have placed their head in such a geographical context); the missionary mandate towards the gentiles (this too is quite hard to understand in a phenomenon which arose within Judaism); the realism of the historical event of their Lord, of which one is not silent about the defeat before the common people, to the point of the scandal of the death on the cross. Others have also noted that while Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God in almost exclusively eschatological terms, the phrases which the primitive community coined are of a principally missionary tenor. Finally, the miracles attributed to Jesus do not closely follow the same terminology of those which the disciples worked: whereas Jesus works miracles in his own name, his disciples work them solely «in the name of Jesus» (cf. Acts 3:6 and 9:34).
The validity of the criterion of discontinuity is based upon the fact that the two worlds used as terms of comparison, Judaism and Christianity, are "better known" than the message and the life of Jesus Christ: whereas we can reach Jesus only through the Gospels, Judaism and primitive Christianity are known through various other documents, which allows one to make use of the criterion with a justly motivated confidence. At the same time, the criterion is insufficient by itself to help us reconstruct the distinctive nucleus of the history of Jesus.
2. The Criterion of Continuity or Conformity. The "criterion of continuity" is used in an articulated way. By means of a study of an external continuity one searches for a conformity between the narrations of the Gospels and the local, cultural, religious situation of Jesus. In a second step, one looks into such a continuity from an internal point of view, namely solely regarding that material, already within the Gospels, which the analysis of discontinuity or dissimilarity made to be recognized as plausibly original.
In Catholic circles, the criterion of external continuity has been used quite often, especially in regards to archeology, seeking by means of it to balance out the historical-literary criticism used for the most part by the Reformers, which was seen by some as something weakening the truthfulness of the Gospel accounts. If the critical methods, affirmed above all by the Reformed theologians, were seen to be suspect by the Catholics for their skeptical conclusions regarding the historicity of the Bible, the "archeological revolution" was welcomed with approval by Catholic theology for the confirmations which it brought forth in support of traditional positions. Today, the opposition between "literary criticism" and "archeology" has been overcome: how could one not be aware, for example, of the internal criticism of the Gospels, from the very discoveries of Qumrân? The argument of conformity or external continuity cannot be considered as the point of contention between Catholics and Protestants, yet both points of view are to be kept with equilibrium.
The possibilities of applying the criterion of continuity between the Gospel accounts and the Palestinian world are multiple: the historical, political situation, identifiable with great figures which are also recognized by other sources (the Roman governors or procurators: Quirinius, Pontius Pilate, Antonius Felix, King Herod Antipas, the High Priest Caiphas, etc); the geographical framework (cities, mountains, lakes, rivers, etc.); the cultural environment manifested by the presence, in the Greek text, of original Aramaic words (amen, korban, abba, hosanna, etc.); the religious context of the era, which emerges for example from the contrast between the Pharisees and Sadducees; in the way of speaking and of asking questions typical to the Rabbinic world; to the central value attributed to the Temple. But how far does the criterion of external continuity allow one to go? For that which concerns the content of the Gospels, generally understood, the parallels are so close and precise that they allow us to exclude the hypothesis of an artificial reconstruction, and thus bring us even to the world of Jesus, from which the very material of the Gospels is said to have taken its origin. Does this conformity allow us to go beyond the threshold of that world to finally arrive at the "historical Jesus"? Taken by itself, such a criterion is not capable of so much: in order to go beyond likelihood and probability and to formulate a judgment with certainty, the criterion of continuity, or even its being combined with that of discontinuity within the comparative method, must be used together with other arguments of which it is necessary to evaluate the convergence. The criterion of continuity, however, offers a sufficient proof in order to approach the Gospels already with a confidence which can motivate and guide an analysis and a successive closer examination.
3. A Synthetic Assessment of this Method. Considered from within the comparative method, the relation between continuity and discontinuity establishes therefore a comparison between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Judaic/Primitive Christian world, by revealing at the same time the harmony (continuity) and the contrast (discontinuity) between the two points in question. Thus one is able to grasp, on the one hand, the adherence of Jesus to the world which surrounded him, and on the other hand, the resolute detachment from it: conformity with his surroundings becomes the background of this unique and most original figure. The relationship between continuity and discontinuity develops along the lines, therefore, of “distinction-complementarity”: if discontinuity enables one to understand and prove the uniqueness of the phenomenon of Jesus, it is by means of the continuity that one succeeds in placing that phenomenon in the context of his world and his time. In a word, it is by means of the continuity that one grasps the discontinuity. One can reach the historical Jesus solely if one understands him in his "situation" and by studying the relationship to his native land where he grew up. Thus one is able to overcome the difficulty of a presumed contradiction between the two criteria: such that a piece of information which is in continuity, on the one hand one ought to accept it (exactly on account of the continuity), and on the other hand one ought to reject it (in light of its discontinuity). In reality, when one finds oneself before a piece of information which inserts itself in the "general" sphere of the history of the epoch, but yet is in contrast to several "particular" aspects, then one can (external conformity), in fact, one ought (discontinuity) accept it as a valid reason for carrying on with the investigation.
III. From what is Historical to what is Authentic: the “Style” of Jesus
Various contemporary exegetes would include among the criteria for the evaluation of the authenticity of the Gospels that of the "style of Jesus," even if all of them do not speak of it in the same way. Such a criterion has, however, a two fold meaning according to whether one thus understands the "linguistic" or "literary" style of Jesus or his "lifestyle." The first aspect relates to the field of philological-literary analysis, whereas the second enters into the psychological dimension of his personality (sincerity of life, coherence, etc.).
According to the criterion of "literary style," the words of Jesus would be recognized as authentic when they are traceable to the characteristic features of the linguistic environment of the epoch of Jesus. Jeremias was the first to examine the Aramaic foundations of the loghia, that is of the "words of Jesus," concluding that if such a criterion doesn’t necessarily lead to a conclusion regarding the authenticity of individual expressions (ipsissima verba), it does at least lead to a reconstruction of the lines of the ipsissima vox Iesu, i.e., of the style of his manner of speaking (cf. Jeremias, 1965 e 1971). Other authors (Dahl, Calvert, McEleny) observe that such a criterion helps one to judge the antiquity of the loghion, of the various expressions, but that it does not authorize us to necessarily ascribe them to Jesus. We are, therefore, in front of an indication of “antiquity”, but not necessarily of "authenticity". In terms of authenticity, the criterion of the literary style constitutes solely the grounds of likelihood.
It is, however, by entering into the lifestyle of Jesus that we can arrive at something which is more convincing. By "lifestyle" one understands the whole of the general characteristics which mark the language and behavior of Jesus, which make up precisely his "proper style." Among the first authors who, even though they were not exegetes, cast light on the fruitfulness of this type of analysis in the theological-fundamental circles, namely in connection to the motives of credibility of Christianity, Karl Adam (1876-1966) and Romano Guardini (1885-1968) are to be mentioned. At the end of his study on the "Intimate life of Jesus," the theologian from Tübingen asked himself: "Who is this Jesus, who can pray so holily, who can live so confidently and die so guiltless? [...] When has there ever appeared on earth a being like unto him? All human standards fail us here. The religious, like the intellectual and moral, stature of Jesus, reaches dimensions beyond human measurement" (Adam, 1979, p. 122). In philological circles, H. Schürmann studied the unique and inimitable way of speaking of Jesus. It is a question of a language which bears witness to a singular consciousness of self, a mark of solemnity and at the same time of an eschatological urgency, a decisive and categorical tone. Concerning his characteristic comportment, one can note, together with W. Trilling (1978), a constant love towards sinners, a holy indignation before all hypocrisy, a sincere compassion for all those who suffer, and, above all, a decisive orientation towards God, Lord and Father.
A clear and complete application of the criterion of lifestyle was made by René Latourelle in the case of miracles. Concerning the miracles, he pointed out their necessity, benevolence and simplicity. Jesus wrought miracles to heal and to save, never to punish; he does chose among the various illnesses in order to set aside certain cases over others; in working a miracle, he does not use any "magical formula," any process of hypnosis or of suggestion, but uses a simple word, a simple gesture. One is, before miracles, wrought within a religious context, in an atmosphere of prayer and of faith and, relevant for the analysis of his manner of life. Miracles are wrought by Jesus with great discretion, which is manifest in his refusal of clamorous exhibition. The originality of such characteristics becomes even clearer in comparison to the miracles transmitted by the literature of Greek antiquity or those transmitted by the "apocryphal" gospels, namely those documents about the life of Jesus which the Magisterium already in the first centuries did not wish to recognize as authentic, and further excluded them from the canonical Scriptures (cf. DH 213). Latourelle observes how "the wonders worked by Christ contrast with other stories of the marvelous that are related to them at the level of literary structure. Analogy does not imply genealogy. The style of the miracles of Jesus is unparalleled, as is that of his words. In him action and speech go together; this consistency is already enough to pose the question of the identity of the person who acts and speaks in this manner" (Latourelle, 1988, p. 63). This question, which was already asked by those contemporaneous to Jesus, the Gospels themselves tell us of: in response to the high priests and to the Pharisees who were asking the guards "why did you not bring him?", to which they respond: "Never before has anyone spoken like this one" (Jn 7:45-46).
The use of the criterion of lifestyle does not lead to, as several have objected, to a vicious circle. The whole of the sayings, of the discourses or even of the deeds, which leading to the defining of the "style of Jesus", are not recognized as such upon the basis of a preconceived style or as a result of a simple drawing near to the Gospels, as a general whole. The style of Jesus, in fact, is recognized upon the basis of those expressions and those comportments which already the comparative method, with the criteria of continuity and discontinuity, was suggesting to us to be considered as credible. In particular, the lifestyle presents itself as a more convincing argument than that of the linguistic style, for it can demonstrate the authenticity and therefore merits to be considered as a criterion.
Concerning the criterion of the lifestyle of Jesus, we can thus make the following conclusions. The linguistic style deals with the "literary form" of the language of Jesus; it is substantially an application derived from external continuity (cf. see above, II.2), that which particularly relates to the linguistic background of the epoch. Since such a style is also common to other persons of the epoch and of the surroundings of Jesus, the argument leads to an authenticity which is only likely and at most probable: the linguistic style and the literary style do not allow one to conclude any more than the "antiquity of the loghion." The criterion of lifestyle, which deals with the sayings and deeds of Jesus in which one notes a trait typical to his personality and which reflect the characteristics of his message is for the most part a derivation from the criterion of internal continuity: since this time it is a question of the personal style, i.e. that which is typical and particular to Jesus, such a criterion, properly used, can lead to the "authenticity of the data." It, furthermore, has a more vast application that that of linguistic style, which deals solely with the sayings, and not with the deeds, whereas the lifestyle constitutes a characteristic expression of the personality of Jesus. The linguistic style and that of the lifestyle represent therefore an argumentation which flows from the question of continuity —the prior from external continuity, the latter from internal continuity— and this requires that they be used in a "dependent"and "converging" way with the other criteria.
IV. The Sources which Provided the Material for the Gospels and the Criterion of Multiple Assertions
1. How the four Gospels were formed. Scholars attribute the origin of the material collected in the four Gospels to five independent "sources." These are commonly known as the source Mk, that is the Gospel according to Mark, the shortest of all of them and which seems to have provided the "foundational structure," at least in part, for the redaction of the other three; the source Q (from the German word Quelle, source), which would be made up of the "sayings of Jesus," or a series of teachings traceable to the oral preaching of Jesus which appear in the gospels according to Matthew and Luke, but which are not present in Mark (the most well-known example is that of the Sermon on the Mount); the three sources M, L, and J, are made up respectively of that which is proper and specific in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John and which is not brought forth by the first two sources. In the four Gospels, therefore, material coming from these five sources would flow together, which the evangelist then organized according to his style and enriched with his personal redaction. The diverse sources, although independent, can at times put forth the same episodes or tell the same parables, but they do it according to their own "channel of transmission": language, style, terminology, specific relationship to the speaker, etc.
These "sources" are considered, in certain ways, as "witnesses" of that which happened and was then put into writing at the time of Jesus. Their reciprocal concordance can also be used as a criterion of authenticity, thus giving origin to that which is called the "criterion of multiple assertions." If the singularity of an event or a saying told by one sole fount is not sufficient for establishing its non-historicity, the simultaneous appearance of the same saying or deed in different sources weighs in in favor of its historicity and, with the right conditions present, also weighs in on its authenticity. Not only can the "sources" be considered as diverse witnesses, but also the literary forms. Thus, the love of God towards sinners, for example, is born witness to by the “parabolic genre” (the prodigal son, Lk 15:11-32), by the "controversial genre" (publicans and sinners shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, Mt 21:28-32) and by an episode (the calling of Levi, Mk 2:13-17). It is not enough, however, that a theme be found in various literary sources, because all of these could belong to the same source, but, if it is found present in various forms in more sources, as in the example just made, then it is more than likely authentic.
2. The Criterion of Multiple Assertions. In order to critically establish the principle of multiple assertions, which takes on much importance in historical methodology in general, it is necessary to keep present two elements, one offered by experimental psychology and the other offered from a more philosophical background. Experimental psychology presents the evidence that two or more people independent of one another neither invent the same fact nor corrupt it in the same way. On a philosophical plane, upon the foundation of the principle of sufficient reason, the agreement of witnesses, who are certainly independent, especially if coming from persons or areas with different points of view and different interests, or even contrasting, if one doesn’t want to attribute it to chance, demands as an adequate explanation the "reality of the fact."
The argument of multiple assertions is widely used in textual criticism, in procedural law, and in historiography. In this last field, the criterion was widely used by the positivists, who used as a privileged reference for their gnoseology the method of the exact sciences: the strong point of such a method, as is known, is the comparison of diverse independent observations, or measurements: if in and of themselves each one can be subject to error, their concordance diminishes or eliminates the doubt regarding the value to be given to the measurement. Once this method is taken to a radical extreme, such a model leads, however, to the extreme of one sole witness equals no witness (testis unus, testis nullus). If one wishes to avoid such an extreme, it is necessary to recall another aphorism: witnesses are not to be multiplied, but pondered (testimonia non numerentur, sed ponderentur): one serious and faithful witness is enough to merit a reasonable assent, whereas the witness of more suspect witnesses is itself suspect. Therefore, one arrives at a degree of certitude by means of the evaluation of the "credibility" of the witness and more easily, by means of converging witnesses upon the same fact obtained in a different way.
3. Evaluation of this Criterion in the Light of the Presence of a General Consensus in the Early Christian Community. In regards to that which concerns us, we need to ask ourselves if in regards to the Gospels the case of converging assertions from several independent sources is verifiable or not. Initially, one could object that, in this specific case, even admitting that the diverse sources are among themselves in some way independent, they would end up however "dependent" upon the primitive community: tracing back the various lines of the diverse oral traditions, one would always arrive at one great common "Source," that precisely of the paschal community. How could one then apply this criterion of multiple assertions when one would be dealing with in reality one “sole” source?
In order to avoid hasty conclusions, it must be clarified above all that, a priori, "one sole source" does not necessary mean "one sole assertion": to understand this, it is enough to realize that they could bring forth multiple and independent assertions which express themselves harmoniously to the point of constituting a posteriori one sole unique source. Actually, one must attentively consider the nature of the community with which we are dealing. It is not a monolithic block: its enough just to think of the number (more than five hundred, according to 1Cor 15:6, saw the risen Christ), but above all the "quality" of its members. It is a matter of witnesses who, in as much as they were "of one heart and mind" (cf. Acts 4:32), remain nonetheless people with well-defined individuality and with diverse mentalities and points of view: Peter, for example, is not James, and James is not John. With all of this, we wish to say that the "plurality" of witnesses is to be taken seriously, if one doesn’t wish to reduce the polyphonic richness of the community (made up also of discords and counterpoints) to a flat solo. Therefore, even on the level of the community there is present plurality, multiplicity of witnesses and of voices, and therefore one can speak of "multiple assertions" not only on the level of redaction or of tradition, but also, the necessary clarifications having been made, on the level of the primitive church.
But now, how can one, in force of the criterion of multiple assertions, pass from the community to Jesus? This last —and decisive— passage would effectively be impossible if the criterion was not joined together with, as in fact does happen, a whole series of "motives for trusting" in the sincerity of the community, in the credibility of the assertions of its various witnesses. Several of these motives for trusting can be thus recapitulated.
First of all, the community of the first Christians is a community of disciples. It is a question of people to whom Jesus had exercised an appealing and attractive power: they carried with them, therefore, profound esteem and veneration towards that exceptional master, they jealously guarded his sayings and faithfully passed on the memory of the events to which they were eye-witnesses. It cannot be forgotten, then, that this "passing on" (Gr. parádosis) took place in the context of a culture with a developed oral tradition, in which the cult of the past, the facility of memorizing and a certain mnemonic technique guaranteed more than sufficiently a faithful preservation of the master’s sayings.
Secondly, the primitive community is furthermore a community of apostles. These were already formed by Jesus for missionary activity (one recalls the pre-paschal mission related by Lk 10:1-11) and who, in order to bring forward the "great mission" after Easter, needed to constantly refer themselves to the history of salvation which they had to proclaim. The kerygmatic-catechetical and the apologetical necessity urged upon the apostles the need to look back, to return to the words and deeds of Jesus. It is for this reason that the first community "devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles" (Acts 2:42). As one sees, information about Jesus comes forth from within by a preaching controlled and guaranteed by a group of fundamental witnesses, the twelve.
Finally, the first Christian community presents itself to us as a community of martyrs or of witnesses: the awareness of such a role was the indispensable condition for belonging to the inner circle of the twelve (as in the election of Matthias in Acts 1:21-22), all the more the fact that there were many more people still alive by whom one could be disavowed in case of falsity. These witnesses were ready to pay with their blood for their adhesion to the message and to the works of Jesus of Nazareth.
Confidence in the assertion of the primitive community is fully confirmed by the general belief, harmoniously nourished by the various local churches of the 2nd century (which were even so jealously bound to the typical characteristics of their own ecclesial life) to have in the Gospels the authentic accounts of the deeds and sayings of Jesus, as is clear from the liturgical, catechetical, apologetical use of the Gospels, from the clear distinction between the Gospels and the apocryphal texts, from the diligent preservation of the text.
As an example of an application of the criterion of multiple assertions, here we can briefly reflect on the account of the institution of the Eucharist. On the level of redaction, we have four diverse assertions about this event: 1Cor 11:23-30; Mk 14:22-25; Mt 26:26-29 and Lk 22:15-20. It is, however, the common opinion that these four texts offer us only two independent types of tradition, one probably from Antioch (Paul and Luke), the other from Jerusalem (Mark and Matthew): on the level of sources, we would then have a twofold assertion. Notwithstanding the nuances peculiar to each one, the two sources show forth a substantial agreement that cannot but point to a sole great "Source": the eucharistic liturgy of the apostolic community. To call into question the trustworthiness of the account of the community is all the more unreasonable: to say that the passage is a product of the community and not the transmission of something received from Christ, and therefore "authentic," ne would need have very serious proofs. Without such proofs, one needs to uphold the sincerity of the community, and the possibility then of a post-Paschal creation therefore needs to be proven, and not assumed. The argument is strengthened if in favor of the community that whole series of motives of trust mentioned above come into play, and if the criterion of multiple assertions is accompanied by, as is the case, other criteria (for example the discontinuity-continuity with regards to the tradition of the Hebrew Passover meal).
After all the considerations taken into account up until this point, it is now possible for us to establish some conclusions. In the first place, when an account does not have multiple assertions, it cannot be called solely on account of that inauthentic (the criterion, indeed, cannot be used negatively because from the silence of other sources one can deduce nothing: one who is silent, says nothing (qui tacet, nihil dicit)). In the second place, when an account is backed by multiple assertions, its presumed inauthenticity is to be demonstrated positively (the burden of proof, that is, falls upon those who affirm the inauthenticity). Lastly, when it is a matter of the general elements of the history of Jesus, attested to by more than one “source” (Mk, Q, etc.) and in more than one “form” (sayings, parables, miracles, controversies, etc.), the obtained results will be on account of this more convincing.
4. The Historical Root of the "Existential Charge" transmitted by the Gospels. We shall conclude this overview of criteriology with a brief reflection on the relationship between truth and "praxis." Borrowing the pretext, advanced by historical materialism, that a thought is "true" if it is capable of “transforming reality”, and that of Bultmanian existentialism according to which a thought is true when it "gives meaning to existence," we could ask ourselves: can we prove the "authenticity" of the Gospels by starting with their capacity to transform history and to give meaning to existence? If it were thus, could we say, for example, that the Sermon of the Mount is "true" because it changed the history of humanity and brought forth innumerous saints? We need to be more precise though in terms of how we understand the word "authentic." If authentic means "real," "valid," i.e. something with a foundation in reality, the response is in the affirmative: at the foundation of Christian morality there is a new law really expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, if authentic means "historical," the discussion is more delicate: to prove that the Sermon is historical, namely that it comes from Jesus and not from Judaism or from the primitive Christian community, it is not enough to say that it transformed the world.
At this point, one could call to mind holiness as a "sign of credibility" of Christianity (cf. Latourelle, 1972). This demonstrates that the Gospel message has been historically capable of generating a praxis on both the social and personal levels. The Gospel says that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he died and rose for our salvation, and the life of the saint, which is a lived Gospel, concretely shows that salvation and the meaning of his existence come from the Christ of the Gospel. From the sign of holiness, one can arrive at a sort of "global trust" towards the words and the deeds contained in that book, but the argument of "existentiality" will not be of use for proving the historicity of individual discourses or deeds of which Jesus was the protagonist. Nonetheless, the sign of holiness could represent an important "stimulus" for drawing near to the Gospels, overcoming an initial skepticism or a systematic doubt in their regards, and at the same time it will constitute a valid "motive of credibility" in relation to the Christian message: at the origin and in the foundation of a message so unique and sublime, capable of changing and directing the life of so many people, there must be a profound and versatile personality, the historical Jesus, who still calls upon the men and women of today, through the Gospel writings.
V. A Path for Approaching Jesus
At this point, we are now able to try and construct a path which, through the Gospels, will lead us to Jesus of Nazareth. The itinerary which lies before us is initially "regressive." It starts with the position of the Gospels in the Church of the 2nd century, goes backwards in time up until the most ancient stages of the tradition, i.e. recreating inversely the history of their formation.
1. Going Backwards: from the Gospels of the Church to the Gospel "of Jesus". The "point of departure" is therefore the authority of the Gospels in the ancient Church. The liturgical, catechetical, apologetical use, which already in that epoch was being made of the Gospels, the diligent preservation of the text, the clear distinction between the Gospels and the apocryphal gospels, all of this demonstrates a firm belief of the historical and dogmatic value of these documents. Let us quickly deal with the value of this point of departure: on the path towards Jesus, neither the believer, nor the historian can try —without the risk of his research failing— to engage in this adventure as a sole pioneer. If it is true that the Gospels are books of the Church, the first thing to be done in the work of historical criticism is to place oneself within the heart and context of the primitive Church by examining how those books were considered, used and preserved. The phase of the "history of redaction" (Ger. Redaktionsgeschichte) allows us to go even further back in time, towards the threshold of tradition, showing us, on the one hand, the elements of interpretation typical to the individual evangelist (which therefore are set aside), and on the other hand, the elements which are not in agreement with his "personal prospective" (characterized by his particular theological vision, attention towards specific speakers, etc.), whose acknowledgement within the Gospel, always possible, shows faithful respect towards the material passed on. If therefore, in the preliminary study of the attitude of the Church of the 2nd century (our point of departure), the Gospels were considered as a whole ("a fourfold Gospel", according to an expression of the Fathers of the Church), on the level of the "history of redaction," one now takes up the individual Gospels ("according to Matthew," "according to Mark," etc.), studying their diverse theological conceptions and the typical literary style. Next, the phase of the "tradition or history of the forms" (Ger. Formgeschichte) can reveal at the foundation of the Gospels diverse sources, which lead to the pre-synoptic traditions. By means of a patient and methodic work of literary criticism one can reconstruct the most ancient nucleus of the tradition (from the Gospels to the Gospel). Yet, there still remains the most delicate and important step to be taken, towards the last phase, that of Jesus (from the gospel "about Jesus" to the Gospel "of Jesus"). This is the work of historical criticism, which one accomplishes with the wise use of the methodology of criteriology, applied in an elastic and convergent way, based upon the various motives of likelihood, upon clues of probability, upon the criteria of historical authenticity.
2. Going Onwards: from the Pre-Paschal Eye-Witnesses to the Gospels. In a complimentary way, from the regressive path of the itinerary of the approach towards the history of Jesus, there comes forth a "progressive" path. This can be formulated in terms of specific "Christologies," namely a combination of objective information and subjective understandings which contribute to the delineation of a certain “image” of Jesus Christ. Even here, as in the preceding itinerary, it is possible to delineate four steps: it is a question of looking at above all the Christology of the eye-witnesses of the life of Jesus, then that of the witnesses of the resurrection, then that of the primitive preaching, and finally that of the synoptic Gospels.
The Christology of the eye-witnesses before Easter. Such a Christology brings with it above all the certitude that Jesus was "truly a man": this is the first principle of continuity between the Jesus of history and the Christ of the faith; without the man Jesus, there would be no Christology. The Christology of the eye-witnesses implies, not only the "pure data" of the real existence of a man, Jesus of Nazareth, but also a certain "image" of that man. It is difficult to make precise the elements of this image as they were thus perceived by the disciples before Easter, given that the image transmitted by the Gospels was put into writing "in the light of Easter," namely in the light of the faith in the resurrection, and in a certain way as enveloped by it. It seems, however, that those elements cannot flow from the figure of a simple Rabbi or of an "ordinary" prophet, but rather from a messianic candidate, of a great eschatological prophet. The Christology of the witnesses of the Resurrection bears with it not only the observation of the humiliating death of Jesus, but also the experience of the new life of the Risen One. It is to be pointed out that Jesus appears Risen only to those who had closely shared in his life lived among us (cf. Acts 10:37-43), who had in a certain way "accepted" him in his pre-paschal existence, showing him their trust, and who were still under the shock of the immediate memory of his death: the faith in the heavenly Christ therefore is placed in continuity with the memory of the earthly Jesus. The Christology of the primitive preaching: even if strongly influenced by the experience of Easter, the primitive kerygma makes reference to the memory of the time in which the Lord Jesus lived, from the baptism of John up until his Ascension (cf. Acts 1:21-22). It is the same vital context of the primitive community (liturgical, apologetical, missionary) which postulates the going back to the life of Jesus. Lastly, the Christology of the Synoptics projects the light of the paschal Christ upon the history of Jesus; yet, such documents are animated by an even stronger desire, that of "reconstructing that history." This desire is so explicit that it characterizes the very "literary genre" of the Gospel.
The affirmations of Luke and John do not leave any shadow of doubt in this regard: «Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning, and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received» (Lk 1:1-4). Thus the two different conclusions in the Gospel according to St. John: "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [his] disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name. […] It is this disciple who testifies to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written" (Jn 20:30-31 and 21:24-25).
VI. Reading the Gospels in the Spirit and in the Church
The place occupied by the Gospels in the life of the Church is central, just as the person of Jesus Christ is in the history of salvation. The believing community received them and passes them on fully aware of their origin and the role that the Holy Spirit had in their inspiration and transmission. "The Church has always and everywhere held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. For what the Apostles preached in fulfillment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed on to us in writing: the foundation of faith, namely, the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven" (Dei Verbum, nn. 18-19). For a right reading of the Gospels in the Spirit and in the Church, I offer here an essential framework of references, under the form of three criteria: a) the dogmatic principle, b) the literary principle, and c) the historical principle.
1. The Dogmatic Principle. It is the principle of the «truth of salvation» (veritas salutaris), formulated by Dei Verbum: "Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth (veritatem) which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation (nostrae salutis causa)" (Dei Verbum, n. 11). This principle asserts therefore the existence of "deeds bound to the history of salvation," but exactly in as much as they are considered from the particular point of view of their relationship to salvation. From this point of view, the fact that Jesus died and rose from the dead, that he presented himself as the Christ and the Son of God, that he worked miracles, that he took up the side of publicans and sinners, that he instituted the Church, etc.: all of this is part of the central nucleus of the new covenant.
The case is different for those various marginal details which, although materially present in the text, do not touch upon the configuration of the mystery of salvation. In the history of the relationship of God with humanity, nothing is changed, for example, by whether the Baptist had said: "I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals" (Lk 3:16) or "I am not worthy to carry his sandals" (Mt 3:11). St. Augustine, as I have observed before, sought to resolve these discordances with a simple "concordism," by affirming that the Baptist would have said both the one and the other. The intention of the Evangelists was not to satisfy our curiosity, but to reveal to us the mystery of the love of God, which became history in Jesus of Nazareth. There are not any problems therefore with the fact that in the Gospels there show forth various inexact or approximate details. According to the document On the Historicity of the Gospels, issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1964, "The truth of the Gospel account is not compromised because the Evangelists report the Lord's words and deeds in different order. Nor is it hurt because they report His words, not literally (ad litteram) but in a variety of ways, while retaining the same meaning" (PBC, On the Historicity of the Gospels, April 21, 1964, n. 2, EV 2, 156). Furthermore, it must also be kept in mind that expressive approximations such as are hyperboles or paradoxes, are explicitly admitted by Pius XII’s Encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu in 1943 (cf. DH 3830). Among the causes which explain the "approximate ways" one must also include the minor importance which was given in oral tradition, by the very mentality of the one passing the information on, to certain particulars which would receive greater attention in a written redaction such as, for example, the fact that Jesus at Jericho had healed one or two blind men (cf. Mk 10:46; Mt 20:30).
2. The Literary Principle. Such a principle consists in giving the necessary attention to the literary genre "Gospel," by seeking to understand what is the nature, finality, and the function of this particular genre. In synthesis, one could say that it concerns a "kerygmatic history." To be more precise, history for sure, but not biography. In a biography, classically speaking, one quotes the sources and meticulously follows the chronology; whereas, the Gospels, on the other hand, follow the chronological development solely for the scheme of the great events, (baptism – public ministry – passion and death – resurrection). Furthermore, their content falls into the category of “witness”: profession of faith in Jesus as unique Lord and Savior. Therefore, it is not a neutral account or detached information, but a question which asks for a response of faith, a call for a decisive decision: "the life and teaching of Jesus were not simply related so as to be remembered; they were 'preached' to provide the basis of faith and morals for the Church" (PBC, On the Historicity of the Gospels, EV 2, 157).
Dei Verbum affirms that the sacred Authors wrote the four Gospels "preserving the form of proclamation" (n. 19). Concerning the truth of the accounts, the same document adds that such "truth is set forth and expressed differently (Lat. vario modo) in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture" (n. 12). As one sees, the Second Vatican Council intentionally stated the principle of a plurality and variety of narrative genres, as was already expressed by the Encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu (cf. DH 3830). Unfortunately, one does not always give the necessary attention to this principle, and the variety of narrative forms present in the Gospels become invariably reduced to an "historical account," while it is not necessary, and in part neither is it legitimate, to treat in the same way the account of a miracle, the elements of a controversy, the trial against Jesus, or to place on the same level narrations of episodes in and of themselves quite diverse and which have different meanings, such as the redaction of the encounter with Simeon and Anna in the temple or the vocation of Matthew.
To pay little attention to the literary principle would run the risk of a “fundamentalist” reading of Scripture, an error which the document of the PBC, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993) wished to prevent: "Fundamentalist interpretation starts from the principle that the Bible, being the Word of God, inspired and free from error, should be read and interpreted literally in all its details. But by "literal interpretation" it understands a naively literalist interpretation, one, that is to say, which excludes every effort at understanding the Bible that takes account of its historical origins and development. It is opposed, therefore, to the use of the historical-critical method, as indeed to the use of any other scientific method for the interpretation of Scripture" (EV 13, 2971).
3. The Historical Principle. A further development is offered by the history of the formation of the Gospels. Such a history, having been studied at great length, was described by Dei Verbum in three stages: Jesus, the community, the Evangelists: "The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus" (Dei Verbum, n. 19). These passages concern above all, as I pointed out above, the "history of the forms" (Formgeschichte) and the "history of redaction" (Redaktionsgeschichte). Already in 1964, the instruction of the PBC acknowledged the legitimate use of the positive elements of the Formgeschichte, but refuted, however, the rationalistic prejudices which had spoiled the method from its beginning, as well as the radical, that is mere existentialist or positivistic, conclusions in literary and historical matters to which an improper application of the method had all to often led. The revision of Bultmann’s thesis made "from within" his school, and the completion brought about by the Redaktionsgeschichte allowed a more serene climate to develop up to the point in which Paul VI could make an authoritative acknowledgment concerning the usage of such a method. In his speech to the Pontifical Biblical Commission held on March 14, 1974, he encouraged research done with the analysis of the forms and of the redaction, though with the necessary methodological corrections.
This judgment was later to be confirmed by the above cited Instruction, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (cf. the collective work edited by Ghiberti and Mosetto, 1998; cf. also Lambiasi, 1998). After a careful examination of the wrong applications of the "history of forms," when its use is inspired by an existentialist philosophy (as in the case of Bultmann), in regards to such a method it was said: "one of the results of this method has been to demonstrate more clearly that the tradition recorded in the New Testament had its origin and found its basic shape within Christian community, or early Church, passing from the preaching of Jesus himself to that which proclaimed that Jesus is the Christ. Eventually, form-criticism was supplemented by Redaktionsgeschichte ('redaction-criticism'), the 'critical study of the process of editing' [...] All this has made it possible to understand far more accurately the intention of the authors and editors of the Bible, as well as the message which they addressed to their first readers. The achievement of these results has lent the historical-critical method an importance of the highest order" (PBC, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, EV 13, 2865). The correct application of the method of the history of the forms and of the history of the redaction not only does not enlarge the gap between Jesus and the Gospels, but quite the opposite, shows how the Gospels came into being and how they developed from within a living tradition, which the texts allow one to reconstruct by going back even as far as the level of their founding event.
Abbreviations and complete titles of the documents
PBC, DH 3398-3400, 3561-3578; PBC, The Historicity of the Gospel, April 21, 1964, EV 2, 151-161; Dei Verbum, 18-19; PBC, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, April 15, 1993, EV 13, 2846-3150; Novo millennio ineunte, 17-18.
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