Thursday, August 11, 2005

Read bibles without footnotes


I have a question: how does the "two-source" theory of the synoptic gospels help faith? If you aren't familiar with it, the two-source theory says that Matthew, Mark, and Luke can all be traced to two sources, the gospel of Mark and another source, called Q, which is a currently non-existent collection of the sayings of Jesus. It is commonly presented as fact in introductions to the bible (and certainly in the introductions and footnotes of the New American Bible).

Why? Why is it presented so prominently in books and bibles produced for the public? How does it build up the Church?

My issue is not whether the theory is true or not. I tend to think it isn't, or at least that the evidence for it is largely conjecture, but it could be the case, I suppose. My issue is with presenting the canonical texts of the bible to the faithful with all sorts of apparata of interpretation. Rather than giving someone the gospels as the word of God, one gives the gospels as collections of historical texts. The suppositions of textual criticism may be true (or they may not be--there is no way to test the claims of scripture scholarship), but what purpose is there to present these suppositions first, before one gets to the book itself?

Here's what I think happens: interested person buys bible, and begins reading. He's interested in the faith. Then he reads the introductions, say to the New American Bible, and finds presented as facts various claims about the authorship and development of the texts. Then interested person thinks "Hey, these books aren't anything special. The intro says they weren't eyewitness accounts! Just a bunch of sayings edited together." Now, certainly the innerancy and inspiration of Scripture can coexist with two-source theory and the other theories of authorship--the Holy Spirit can inspire through a Johannine School as much as through the apostle John--but this is a later conclusion reached through reflection on the nature of inspiration. It's not something that the average reader is going to be able to handle.

When I taught scripture in high school, the students had a one-sentence summary of what they learned of the bible: "We learn that nothing that the bible says really happened really happened." That's the impression they got from four years of historical criticism. Perhaps such considerations should be left till later? Perhaps we should presented the inspired word of God as first the inspired word of God?

7 comments:

Old Oligarch said...

Your diagnosis of the problem is correct.

But the remedy may be worse. Catholics have always read the Scriptures with the advantage of glossae, scholia and tradition behind them. Part of the problem with the notes in Bibles like the NAB is that they are bad and we are prone to use them, perhaps even more than the doctrinal commentaries attached, sometimes, to prot bibles.

We should not go sola scriptura as a response. Read BETTER annotated versions:

The Navarre (not entirely free of sorce-critical influence, but largely sane)

The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture

George Leo Haydock's Annotated Douay-Rheims Old and New Testaments

and

Cornelius a Lapide, Commentarium in Sacram Scripturam.

Incidentally, I want to work on this issue for the next ten years.

Patrick said...

Yeah, this reminds me of my personal pet peeve: homilies wherein the priest presents a historical-critical conjecture as fact. I'd be less irritated if there were some kind of caveat ("some scholars have concluded that..."), but most often it's presented as if it were on par with (or more certain than) the dogma of the Church, rather than as an educated guess.

This goes double for homilies in the "Jesus didn't really multiply the loaves, he got everyone to share" species. That really ticks me off. The evangelists were simple, but not stupid; they wouldn't confuse a miraculous suspension of the natural order with a human act of sharing. Either they (or their sources) had witnessed an actual miracle, or they made it up. The "sharing" explanation is poppycock.

Todd said...

Okay.

Well, there are actually four sources, once you count Matthew and Luke themselves, who each had material the others didn't have.

A saint once described theology as faith seeking understanding. If a person has the faith, information or understanding, if you will, can help intensify that faith. By knowing what Luke's themes and focus is, one can narrow what one looks for, if one is seeking something.

Is it helpful to know Matthew is concerned about presenting Jesus as the new Moses? Does it help to know Luke is fond of women and the Holy Spirit? Does it help to know the particular sayings and parables than come from Q? It can. Or sometimes people get benefit from just popping into Mass or paging through the Bible and having their finger land where it will.

Biblical criticism has its place. But it will be wasted on people without faith. Better would be to include instructions on how to pray with the Scriptures. Or better, to suggest each reader find a spiritual director.

Dorian Speed said...

I tend to agree with Todd here about the varying levels of usefulness of historical commentary. I suppose my attitude would be along the lines of, "they're going to hear this somewhere else from a person who criticizes the Bible on this basis, so why not tell them about it ourselves?"

Bill said...

I'd also recommend Ignatius Press's reissue of Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers (pricey), and the Catena aurea of Aquinas for Matthew and Mark at ccel. The CA for Luke and John aren't on the net in English afaik, but they are on some CD of church texts.

OO, I once dipped into "The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture" at a bookstore and found a long excerpt from Theodore of Mopsuestia along with some good stuff. Has he been rehabilitated like Evagrius Ponticus (by G Bunge, L Dysinger, J Driscoll), or was it just a case of a Protestant editor not knowing what's up?

Navarre is good as far as it goes, but it'd be better if it were 10 times longer. There's so much they could pack in there with their excellent editorial judgement but there isn't room.

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