Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/New Testament
IV. Transmission of the Text;
V. Contents, History, and Doctrine.
Testament come from testamentum, the word by which the Latin ecclesiastical writers translated the Greek diatheke. With the profane authors this latter term means always, one passage of Aristophanes perhaps excepted, the legal disposition a man makes of his goods for after his death. However, at an early date, the Alexandrian translators of the Scripture, known as the Septuagint, employed the word as the equivalent of the Hebrew berith, which means a pact, an alliance, more especially the alliance of Yahweh with Israel. In St. Paul (I Cor., xi, 25) Jesus Christ uses the words "new testament" as meaning the alliance established by Himself between God and the world, and this is called "new" as opposed to that of which Moses was the mediator. Later on, the name of testament was given to the collection of sacred texts containing the history and the doctrine of the two alliances; here again and for the same reason we meet the distinction between the Old and New Testaments. In this meaning the expression Old Testament (he palaia diatheke) is found for the first time in Melito of Sardis, towards the year 170. There are reasons for thinking that at this date the corresponding word "testamentum" was already in use amongst the Latins. In any case it was common in the time of Tertullian.
The New Testament, as usually received in the Christian Churches, is made up of twenty-seven different books attributed to eight different authors, six of whom are numbered among the Apostles (Matthew, John, Paul, James, Peter, Jude) and two among their immediate disciples (Mark, Luke). If we consider only the contents and the literary form of these writings they may be divided into historical books (Gospels and Acts), didactic books (Epistles), a prophetical book (Apocalypse). Before the name of the New Testament had come into use the writers of the latter half of the second century used to say "Gospel and Apostolic writings" or simply "the Gospel and the Apostle", meaning the Apostle St. Paul. The Gospels are subdivided into two groups, those which are commonly called synoptic (Matthew, Mark, Luke), because their narratives are parallel, and the fourth Gospel (that of St. John), which to a certain extent completes the first three. They relate to the life and personal teaching of Jesus Christ. The Acts of the Apostles, as is sufficiently indicated by the title, relates the preaching and the labours of the Apostles. It narrates the foundation of the Churches of Palestine and Syria only; in it mention is made of Peter, John, James, Paul, and Barnabas; afterwards, the author devotes sixteen chapters out of the twenty-eight to the missions of St. Paul to the Greco-Romans. There are thirteen Epistles of St. Paul, and perhaps fourteen, if, with the Council of Trent, we consider him the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. They are, with the exception of this last-mentioned, addressed to particular Churches (Rom.; I, II Cor.; Gal.; Ephes.; Philip.; Colos.; I, II Thess.) or to individuals (I, II Tim.; Tit.; Philem.). The seven Epistles that follow (James; I, II Peter; I, II, III John; Jude) are called "Catholic", because most of them are addressed to the faithful in general. The Apocalypse addressed to the seven Churches of Asia Minor (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamus, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea) resembles in some ways a collective letter. It contains a vision which St. John had at Patmos concerning the interior state of the above-mentioned communities, the struggle of the Church with pagan Rome, and the final destiny of the New Jerusalem.
The New Testament was not written all at once. The books that compose it appeared one after another in the space of fifty years, i.e. in the second half of the first century. Written in different and distant countries and addressed to particular Churches, they took some time to spread throughout the whole of Christendom, and a much longer time to become accepted. The unification of the canon was not accomplished without much controversy (see CANON OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURES). Still it can be said that from the third century, or perhaps earlier, the existence of all the books that to-day form our New Testament was everywhere known, although they were not all universally admitted, at least as certainly canonical. However, uniformity existed in the West from the fourth century. The East had to await the seventh century to see an end to all doubts on the subject. In early times the questions of canonicity and authenticity were not discussed separately and independently of each other, the latter being readily brought forward as a reason for the former; but in the fourth century, the canonicity was held, especially by St. Jerome, on account of ecclesiastical prescription and, by the fact, the authenticity of the contested books became of minor importance. We have to come down to the sixteenth century to hear the question repeated, whether the Epistle to the Hebrews was written by St. Paul, or the Epistles called Catholic were in reality composed by the Apostles whose names they bear. Some Humanists, as Erasmus and Cardinal Cajetan, revived the objections mentioned by St. Jerome, and which are based on the style of these writings. To this Luther added the inadmissibility of the doctrine, as regards the Epistle of St. James. However, it was practically the Lutherans alone who sought to diminish the traditional Canon, which the Council of Trent was to define in 1546.
It was reserved to modern times, especially to our own days, to dispute and deny the truth of the opinion received from the ancients concerning the origin of the books of the New Testament. This doubt and the negation regarding the authors had their primary cause in the religious incredulity of the eighteenth century. These witnesses to the truth of a religion no longer believed were inconvenient, if it was true that they had seen and heard what they related. Little time was needed to find, in analyzing them, indications of a later origin. The conclusions of the Tubingen school, which brought down to the second century, the compositions of all the New Testament except four Epistles of St. Paul (Rom.; Gal.; I, II Cor.), was very common thirty or forty years ago, in so-called critical circles (see Dict. apolog. de la foi catholique, I, 771-6). When the crisis of militant incredulity had passed, the problem of the New Testament began to be examined more calmly, and especially more methodically. From the critical studies of the past half century we may draw the following conclusion, which is now in its general outlines admitted by all: It was a mistake to have attributed the origin of Christian literature to a later date; these texts, on the whole, date back to the second half of the first century; consequently they are the work of a generation that counted a good number of direct witnesses of the life of Jesus Christ. From stage to stage, from Strauss to Renan, from Renan to Reuss, Weizsäcker, Holtzmann, J¨licher, Weiss, and from these to Zahn, Harnack, criticism has just retraced its steps over the distance it had so inconsiderately covered under the guidance of Christian Baur. To-day it is admitted that the first Gospels were written about the year 70. The Acts can hardly be said to be later; Harnack even thinks they were composed nearer to the year 60 than to the year 70. The Epistles of St. Paul remain beyond all dispute, except those to the Ephesians and to the Hebrews, and the pastoral Epistles, about which doubts still exist. In like manner there are many who contest the Catholic Epistles; but even if the Second Epistle of Peter is delayed till towards the year 120 or 130, the Epistle of St. James is put by several at the very beginning of Christian literature, between the years 40 and 50, the earliest Epistles of St. Paul about 52 till 58.
At present the brunt of the battle rages around the writings called Johannine (the fourth Gospel, the three Epistles of John, and the Apocalypse). Were these texts written by the Apostle John, son of Zebedee, or by John the presbyter of Ephesus whom Papias mentions? There is nothing to oblige us to endorse the conclusions of radical criticisms on this subject. On the contrary, the strong testimony of tradition attributes these writings to the Apostle St. John, nor is it weakened at all by internal criteria, provided we do not lose sight of the character of the fourth Gospel—called by Clement of Alexandria "a spiritual gospel", as compared with the three others, which he styled "corporal". Theologically, we must take into consideration some modern ecclesiastical documents (Decree, "Lamentabili", prop. 17, 18, and the answer of the Roman Commission for Biblical Questions, 29 May, 1907). These decisions uphold the Johannine and Apostolic origin of the fourth Gospel. Whatever may be the issue of these controversies, a Catholic will be, and that in virtue of his principles, in exceptionally favourable circumstances for accepting the just exigencies of criticism. If it be ever established that II Peter belongs to a kind of literature then common, namely the pseudepigraph, its canonicity will not on that account be compromised. Inspiration and authenticity are distinct and even separable, when no dogmatic question is involved in their union.
The question of the origin of the New Testament includes yet another literary problem, concerning the Gospels especially. Are these writings independent of one another? If one of the Evangelists did utilize the work of his predecessors how are we to suppose it happened? Was it Matthew who used Mark or vice versa? After thirty years of constant study, the question has been answered only by conjectures. Amongst these must be included the documentary theory itself, even in the form in which it is now commonly admitted, that of the "two sources". The starting-point of this theory, namely the priority of Mark and the use made of him by Matthew and Luke, although it has become a dogma in criticism for many, cannot be said to be more than a hypothesis. However disconcerting this may be, it is none the less true. None of the proposed solutions has been approved of by all scholars who are really competent in the matter, because all these solutions, while answering some of the difficulties, leave almost as many unanswered. If then we must be content with hypothesis, we ought at least to prefer the most satisfactory. The analysis of the text seems to agree fairly well with the hypothesis of two sources—Mark and Q. (i.e. Quelle, the non-Marcan document); but a conservative critic will adopt it only in so far as it is not incompatible with such data of tradition concerning the origin of the Gospels as are certain or worthy of respect.
These data may be resumed a follows.
- The Gospels are really the work of those to whom they have been always attributed, although this attribution may perhaps be explained by a more or less mediate authorship. Thus, the Apostle St. Matthew, having written in Aramaic, did not himself put into Greek the canonical Gospel which has come down to us under his name. However, the fact of his being considered the author of this Gospel necessarily supposes that between the original Aramaic and the Greek text there is, at least, a substantial conformity. The original text of St. Matthew is certainly prior to the ruin of Jerusalem, there are even reasons for dating it earlier than the Epistles of St. Paul and consequently about the year 50. We know nothing definite of the date of its being rendered into Greek.
- Everything seems to indicate the date of the composition of St. Mark as about the time of St. Peter's death, consequently between 60 and 70.
- St. Luke tells us expressly that before him "many took in hand to set forth in order" the Gospel. What then was the date of his own work? About the year 70. It is to be remembered that we must not expect from the ancients the precision of our modern chronology.
- The Johannine writings belong to the end of the first century, from the year 90 to 100 (approximately); except perhaps the Apocalypse, which some modern critics date from about the end of the reign of Nero, A.D. 68 (see GOSPEL AND GOSPELS).
IV. TRANSMISSION OF THE TEXT
No book of ancient times has come down to us exactly as it left the hands of its author—all have been in some way altered. The material conditions under which a book was spread before the invention of printing (1440), the little care of the copyists, correctors, and glossators for the text, so different from the desire of accuracy exhibited to-day, explain sufficiently the divergences we find between various manuscripts of the same work. To these causes may be added, in regard to the Scriptures, exegetical difficulties and dogmatical controversies. To exempt the scared writings from ordinary conditions a very special providence would have been necessary, and it has not been the will of God to exercise this providence. More than 150,000 different readings have been found in the older witnesses to the text of the New Testament—which in itself is a proof that Scriptures are not the only, nor the principal, means of revelation. In the concrete order of the present economy God had only to prevent any such alteration of the sacred texts as would put the Church in the moral necessity of announcing with certainty as the word of God what in reality was only a human utterance. Let us say, however, from the start, that the substantial tenor of the sacred text has not been altered, not withstanding the uncertainty which hangs over some more or less long and more or less important historical or dogmatical passages. Moreover—and this is very important—these alterations are not irremediable; we can at least very often, by studying the variants of the texts, eliminate the defective readings and thus re-establish the primitive text. This is the object of textual criticism.
A. Brief History of the Textual Criticism
The ancients were aware of the variant readings in the text and in the versions of the New Testament; Origen, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine particularly insisted on this state of things. In every age and in diverse places efforts were made to remedy the evil; in Africa, in the time of St. Cyprian (250); in the East by means of the works of Origen (200-54); then by those of Lucian at Antioch and Hesychius at Alexandria, in the beginning of the fourth century. Later on (383) St. Jerome revised the Latin version with the aid of what he considered to be the best copies of the Greek text. Between 400 and 450 Rabbula of Edessa did the same thing for the Syriac version. In the thirteenth century the universities, the Dominicans, and the Franciscans undertook to correct the Latin text. In the fifteenth century printing lessened, although it did not completely suppress, the diversity of readings, because it spread the same type of text, viz., that which the Hellenists of the Renaissance got from the Byzantine scholars, who came in numbers of Italy, Germany, and France, after the capture of Constantinople. This text, after having been revised by Erasmus, Robert Estienne, and Théodore de Bèze, finally, in 1633, became the Elzeverian edition, which was to bear the name of the "received text". In remained the ne varietur text of the New Testament for Protestants up to the nineteenth century. The British and Foreign Bible Society continued to spread it until 1904. All the official Protestant versions depended on this test of Byzantine origin up to the revision of the Authorized Version of the Anglican Church, which took place in 1881.
The Catholics on their side followed the official edition of the Latin Vulgate (which is in substance the revised version of St. Jerome), published in 1592 by order of Clement VIII, and called on that account the Clementine Bible. Thus it can be said that, during two centuries at least, the New Testament was read in the West in two different forms. Which of the two was the more exact? According as the ancient manuscripts of the text were discovered and edited, the critics remarked and noted the differences these manuscripts presented, and also the divergences between them and the commonly received Greek text as well as the Latin Vulgate. The work of comparison and criticism that became urgent was begun, and for almost two centuries has been conducted with diligence and method by many scholars, amongst whom the following deserve a special mention: Mill (1707), Bentley (1720), Bengel (1734), Wetstein (1751), Semler (1765), Griesbach (1774), Hug (1809), Scholz (1830), both Catholics, Lachmann (1842), Tregelles (1857), Tischendorf (1869), Westcott and Hort, Abbé Martin (1883), and at present B. Weiss, H. Von Soden, R.C. Gregory.
B. Resources of Textual Criticism
Never was it as easy as it is in our own days to see, consult, and control the most ancient documents concerning the New Testament. Gathered from almost everywhere they are to be found in the libraries of our big cities (Rome, Paris, London, Saint Petersburg, Cambridge, etc.), where they can be visited and consulted by everyone. These documents are the manuscripts of the Greek text, the old versions and the works of ecclesiastical or other writers who have cited the New Testament. This collection of documents, daily increasing in number, has been called the apparatus criticus. To facilitate the use of the codices of the text and versions they have been classed and denominated by means of letters of the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin alphabets. Von Soden introduced another notation, which essentially consists in the distribution of all the manuscripts into three groups designated respectively by the three Greek letters d (i.e. diatheke, the manuscripts containing the Gospels and something else as well), e (i.e. euaggelia, the manuscripts containing the Gospels only), a (i.e. apostolos, the manuscripts containing the Acts and the Epistles. In each series the manuscripts are numbered according to their age.
(1) Manuscripts of the Text
More than 4000 have been already catalogued and partly studied, only the minority of which contain the whole New Testament. Twenty of these texts are prior to the eighth century, a dozen are of the sixth century, five of the fifth century, and two of the fourth. On account of the number and antiquity of these documents the text of the New Testament is better established than that of our Greek and Latin classics, except Virgil, which, from a critical point of view, is almost in the same conditions. The most celebrated of these manuscripts are:
- B Vaticanus, d 1, Rome, fourth cent.;
- Sinaiticus, d 2, Saint Petersburg, fourth cent.;
- C Ephræmus rescriptus, d 3, Paris, fifth cent.;
- A Alexandrinus, d 4, London, fifth cent.;
- D Cantabrigiensis (or Codex Bezæ) d 5, Cambridge, sixth cent.;
- D 2 Claromontanus, a 1026, Paris, sixth cent.;
- Laurensis, d 6, Mount Athos, eighth-ninth cent.;
- E Basilcensis, e 55, Bâle, eighth cent.
To these copies of the text on parchment a dozen fragments on papyrus, found in Egypt, most of which go back to the fourth century, one even to the third century, must be added. (2) Ancient Versions
Several are derived from original texts prior to the most ancient Greek manuscripts. These versions are, following the order of their age, Latin, Syriac, Egyptian, Armenian, Ethiopian, Gothic, and Georgian. The first three, especially the Latin and the Syriac, are of the greatest importance.
- Latin version — Up to about the end of the fourth century, it was diffused in the West (Proconsular Africa, Rome, Northern Italy, and especially at Milan, in Gaul, and in Spain) in slightly different forms. The best known of these is that of St. Augustine called the "Itala", the sources of which go as far back as the second century. In 383 St. Jerome revised the Italic type after the Greek manuscripts, the best of which did not differ much from the text represented by the Vaticanus and the Sinaiticus. It was this revision, altered here and there by readings from the primitive Latin version and a few other more recent variants, that prevailed in the west from the sixth century under the name of Vulgate.
- Syriac Version — Three primitive types are represented by the Diatessaron of Tatian (second cent.), the palimpset of Sinai, called the Lewis codex from the name of the lady who found it (third cent., perhaps from the end of the second), and the Codex of Cureton (third cent.). The Syriac Version of this primitive epoch that still survives contains only the Gospels. Later, in the fifth century, it was revised after the Greek text. The most widespread of these revisions, which became almost the official version, is called the Pesittâ (Peshitto, simple, vulgate); the others are called Philoxenian (sixth cent.), Heraclean (seventh cent.), and Syro-Palestinian (sixth cent.).
- Egyptian Version — The best known type is that called Boharic (used in the Delta from Alexandria to Memphis) and also Coptic from the generic name Copt, which is a corruption of the Greek aiguptos Egyptian. It is the version of Lower Egypt and dates from the fifth century. A greater interest is attached to the version of Upper Egypt, called the Sahidic, or Theban, which is a work of the third century, perhaps even of the second. Unfortunately it is only incompletely known as yet.
These ancient versions will be considered precise and firm witnesses of the Greek text of the first three centuries only when we have critical editions of them; for they themselves are represented by copies that differ from one another. The work has been undertaken and is already fairly advanced. The primitive Latin version had been already reconstituted by the Benedictine D. Sabatier ("Bibliorum Sacorum latinæ versiones antiquæ seu Vetus Italica", Reims, 1743, 3 vols.); the work has been taken up again and completed in the English collection "Old-Latin Biblical Texts" (1883-1911), still in course of publication. The critical edition of the Latin Vulgate published at Oxford by the Anglicans Wordsworth and White, from 1889 to 1905, gives the Gospels and the Acts. In 1907 the Benedictines received from Pius X the commission to prepare a critical edition of the Latin Bible of St. Jerome (Old and New Testament). The "Diatessaron" of Tatian is known to us by the Arabic version edited by 1888 by Mgr. Ciasea, and by the Armenian version of a commentary of St. Ephraem (which is founded on the Syriac of Tatian) translated into Latin, in 1876, by the Mechitarists Auchar and Moesinger. The publications of H. Von Soden have contributed to make the work of Tatian better known. Mrs. A. S. Lewis has just published a comparative edition of the Syriac palimpset of Sinai (1910); this had been already done by F.C. Burkitt for the Cureton codex, in 1904. There exists also a critical edition of the Peshitto by G. H. Gwilliam (1901). As regards the Egyptian versions of the Gospels, the edition of G. Horner (1901-1911, 5 vols.) has put them at the disposition of all those who read Coptic and Sahidic. The English translation, that accompanies them, is meant for a wider circle of readers.
(3) Citations of Ecclesiastical Authors
The text of the whole New Testament could be constituted by putting together all the citations found in the Fathers. It would be particularly easy for the Gospels and the important Epistles of St. Paul. From a purely critical point of view, the text of the Fathers of the first three centuries is particularly important, especially Irenæus, Justin, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, and later on Ephraem, Cyril of Alexandria, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustine. Here again a preliminary step must be taken by the critic. Before pronouncing that a Father read and quoted the New Testament in this or that way, we must first be sure that the text as in its present form had not been harmonized with the reading commonly received at the time and in the country where the Father's works were edited (in print or in manuscripts). The editions of Berlin for the Greek Fathers and of Vienna for the Latin Fathers, and especially the monographs on the citations of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers (Oxford Society for Historical Theology, 1905), in St. Justin (Bousset, 1891), in Tertullian (Ronsch, 1871), in Clement of Alexandria (Barnard, 1899), in St. Cyprian (von Sodon, 1909), in Origen (Hautsch, 1909), in St. Ephraem (Burkett, 1901), in Marcion (Zahn, 1890), are a valuable help in this work.
C. Method followed
(1) The different readings attested for the same word were first noted, then they were classed according to their causes; involuntary variants: lapsus, homoioteleuton, itacismus, scriptio continua; voluntary variants, harmonizing of the texts, exegesis, dogmatical controversies, liturgical adaptations. This however was only an accumulation of matter for critical discussion.
(2) At first, the process employed was that called individual examination. This consists in examining each case by itself, and it nearly always had as result that the reading found in most documents was considered the right one. In a few cases only the greater antiquity of certain readings prevailed over numerical superiority. Yet one witness might be right rather than a hundred others, who often depend on common sources. Even the oldest text we have, if not itself the original, may be corrupt, or derived from an unfaithful reproduction. To avoid as far as possible these occasions of error, critics were not long before giving preference to the quality rather than to the number of the documents. The guarantees of the fidelity of a copy are known by the history of the intermediate ones connecting it with the original, that is by its genealogy. The genealogical process was brought into vogue especially by two great Cambridge scholars, Westcott and Hort. By dividing the texts, versions, and Patristic citations into families, they arrived at the following conclusions:
(a) The documents of the New Testament are grouped in three families that may be called Alexandrian, Syrian, and Western. None of these is entirely free from alterations.
- The text called Western, best represented by D, is the most altered although it was widely spread in the second and third centuries, not only in the West (primitive Latin Version, St. Irenæ St. Hippolitus, Tertullian, St. Cyprian), but also in the East (primitive Syriac Version, Tatian, and even Clement of Alexandria). However, we find in it a certain number of original readings which it alone has preserved.
- The Alexandrian text is the best, this was the received text in Egypt and, to a certain extent, in Palestine. It is to be found, but adulterated in C (at least as regards the Gospels). It is more pure in the Bohaïric Version and in St. Cyril of Alexandria. The current Alexandrian text however is not primitive. It appears to be a sub-type derived from an older and better preserved text which we have almost pure in B and N. It is this text that Westcott and Hort call neutral, because it has been kept, not absolutely, but much more than all the others, free from the deforming influences which have systematically created the different types of text. The neutral text which is superior to all the others, although not perfect, is attested by Origen. Before him we have no positive testimony, but historical analogies and especially the data of internal criticism show that it must be primitive.
- Between the Western text and the Alexandria text is the place of the Syrian, which was that used at Antioch in Cappadocia and at Constantinople in the time of St. John Chrysostom. It is the result of a methodical "confluence" of the Western text with that received in Egypt and Palestine towards the middle of the third century. The Syrian text must have been edited between the years 250 and 350. This type has no value for the reconstruction of the original text, as all the readings which are peculiar to it are simply alterations. As regards the Gospels, the Syrian text is found in A and E, F, G, H, K, and also in most of the Peschitto manuscripts, Armenian Version, and especially in St. John Chrysostom. The "received text" is the modern descendant of this Syrian text.
(b) The Latin Vulgate cannot be classed in any of these groups. It evidently depends on an eclectic text. St. Jerome revised a western text with a neutral text and another not yet determined. The whole was contaminated, before or after him, by the Syrian text. What is certain is that his revision brought the Latin version perceptibly nearer to the neutral text, that is to say to the best. As to the received text which was compiled without any really scientific method, it should be put completely aside. It differs in nearly 8000 places from the text found in the Vaticanus, which is the best text known.
(c) We must not confound a received text with the traditional text. A received text is a determined type of text used in some particular place, but never current in the whole Church. The traditional text is that which has in its favour the constant testimony of the entire Christian tradition. Considering the substance of the text, it can be said that every Church has the traditional text, for no Church was ever deprived of the substance of the Scripture (in as far as it preserved the integrity of the Canon); but, as regards textual criticism of which the object is to recover the ipsissima verba of the original, there is no text now existing which can be rightly called "traditional". The original text is still to be established, and that is what the editions called critical have been trying to effect for the last century.
(d) After more than a century's work are there still many doubtful readings? According to Westcott and Hort seven-eighths of the text, that is 7000 verses out of 8000, are to be considered definitely established. Still more, critical discussions can even now solve most of the contested cases, so that no serious doubts exist except concerning about one-sixtieth of the contents of the New Testament. Perhaps even the number of passages of which the authenticity has not yet had a sufficient critical demonstration does not exceed twelve, at least as regards substantial alterations. We must not forget, however, that the Cambridge critics do not include in this calculation certain longer passages considered by them as not authentic, namely the end of St. Mark (xvi, 9-20) and the episode of the adulteress (John, viii, 1-11).
(3) These conclusions of the editors of the Cambridge text have in general been accepted by the majority of scholars. Those who have written since them, for the past thirty years, B. Weiss, H. Von Soden, R. C. Gregory, have indeed proposed different classifications; but in reality they scarcely differ in their conclusions. Only in two points do they differ from Westcott and Hort. These latter have according to them given too much importance to the text of the Vaticanus and not enough to the text called Western. As regards the last-mentioned, modern discoveries have made it better known and show that it is not to be overmuch depreciated.
V. CONTENTS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
The New Testament is the principal and almost the only source of the early history of Christianity in the first century. All the "Lives of Jesus Christ" have been composed from the Gospels. The history of the Apostles, as narrated by Renan, Farrar, Fouard, Weizsäcker, and Le Camus, is based on the Acts and the Epistles. The "Theologies of the New Testament", of which so many have been written during the nineteenth century, are a proof that we can with canonical texts build up a compact and fairly complete doctrinal system. But what is the worth of these narrations and syntheses? In what measure do they bring us in contact with the actual facts? It is the question of the historical value of the New Testament which today preoccupies higher criticism.
Everybody agrees that the first three Gospels reflect the beliefs regarding Jesus Christ and his work current among Christians during the last quarter of the first century, that is to say at a distance of forty or fifty years from the events. Few ancient historians were in such favourable conditions. The biographies of the Cæsars (Suetonius and Tacitus) were not in a better position to get exact information. All are forced to admit, moreover, that in the Epistles of St. Paul we come into immediate contact with the mind of the most influential propagator of Christianity, and that a quarter of a century after the Ascension. The faith of the Apostle represents the form of Christian thought most victorious and most widespread in the Greco-Roman world. The writings of St. John introduce us to the troubles of the Churches after the fall of the Synagogue and the first encounter of Christianity with the violence of pagan Rome; his Gospel expresses, to say the least, the Christian attitude of that period towards Christ. The Acts inform us, at all events, what was thought in Syria and Palestine towards the year 65 of the foundation of the Church; they lay before our eyes a traveller's diary which allows us to follow St. Paul from day to day during the ten best years of his missions.
Must our knowledge stop here? Do the earliest monuments of Christian literature belong to the class of writings called "memoirs", and reveal only the impressions and the judgments of their authors? Not a single critic (meaning those who are esteemed as such) has yet ventured to underrate thus the historical worth of the New Testament taken as a whole. The ancients did not even raise the question, so evident did it seem to them that these texts narrated faithfully the history of early Christianity. What aroused the distrust of modern critics was the fancied discovery that these writings although sincere were none the less biased. Composed, as was said, by believers and for believers or, at all events, in favour of the Faith, they aim much more at rendering credible the life and teaching of Jesus than at simply relating what He did and preached. And then they say these texts contain irreconcilable contradictions which testify to uncertainty and variety in the tradition taken up by them at different stages of its development.
(1) It is agreed that the authors of the New Testament were sincere. Were they deceived? If so the writing of truthful history should, apparently, be given up altogether. They were near the events: all eye-witnesses or depending immediately on eye-witnesses. In their view the first condition to be allowed to "testify" on Gospel history was to have seen the Lord, especially the risen Lord (Acts, i, 21-22; 1 Cor., ix, 11; xi, 23; I John, i, 1-4; Luke, 1, 1-4). These witnesses guarantee matters easy to observe and at the same time of supreme importance to their readers. The latter must have controlled assertions claiming to impose an obligation of faith and attended with considerable practical consequences; all the more so as this control was easy, since the matters were in question that had taken place in public and not "in a corner", as St. Paul says (Acts, xxvi, 26; cf. ii, 22; iii, 13-14). Besides, what reasonable hope was there to get books accepted which contained an altered form of the tradition familiar from the teaching of the Churches for more than thirty years, and cherished with all the affection that was borne to Jesus Christ in person? In this sentiment we must seek the final reason for the tenacity of ecclesiastical traditions. Finally, these texts control each other mutually. Written in different circumstances, with varying preoccupations, why do the agree in substance? For history only knows one Christ and one Gospel; and this history is based on the New Testament. Objective reality alone accounts for this agreement.
It is true that these same texts present a multitude of differences in details, but the variety and uncertainty to which that may give rise does not weaken the stability of the whole from a historical point of view. Moreover, that this is compatible with the inspiration and inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures, see INSPIRATION OF THE BIBLE. The causes of these apparent contradictions have been long since pointed out: viz., fragmentary narratives of the same events abruptly put side by side; different perspectives of the same object according as one takes a front or a side view; different expressions to mean the same thing; adaptation, not alteration, of the subject-matter according to the circumstances a feature brought into relief; documents or traditions not agreeing on all points, and which nevertheless the sacred writer has related, without claiming to guarantee them in everything or decide the question of their divergence, These are not subtelties or subterfuges invented to excuse as far as possible our Evangelists. Similar observations would be made about profane authors if there was anything to be gained by doing so. Try for example to harmonize Tacitus with himself in "Historiæ", V, iv, and V, ix. But Herodotus, Polybius, Tacitus, Livy did not narrate the history of a God come to earth to make men submit their whole life to His word. It is under the influence of naturalistic prejudice that some people easily, and as it were a priori, are opposed to the testimony of the Biblical authors. Have not modern discoveries come to show that St. Luke is a more exact historian than Flavius Josephus? It is true that the authors of the New Testament were all Christians, but to be truthful must we be indifferent towards the facts we relate? Love does not necessarily make us blind or untruthful, on the contrary it can allow us to penetrate more deeply into the knowledge of our subjects. In any case, hate exposes the historian to a greater danger of partiality; and is it possible to be without love or hate towards Christianity?
(2) These being the conditions, if the New Testament has handed on to us a counterfeit of history, the falsification must have come about at an early date, and be assignable neither to the insincerity nor the incompetence of its authors. It is the early Christian tradition on which they depend that becomes suspected in its vital sources, as if it had been formed under influences of religious instincts, which irrevocably doomed it to be mythical, legendary, or, again, idealistic, as the symbolists put it. What it transmitted to us was not so much the historical figures of Christ (in the modern acceptation of the term) as His prophetic image. The Jesus of the New Testament had become such as He might or ought to have been imagined to be by one who saw in Him the Messias. It is, doubtless, from the saying of Isaias, "Behold a virgin shall conceive", that the belief in the supernatural conception of Jesus springs—a belief which is definitely formulated in the narratives of St. Matthew and St. Luke. Such is the explanation current amongst unbelievers of to-day, and amongst an ever-increasing number of liberal Protestants. It is notoriously that of Harnack.
Avowedly or no, this way of explaining the formation of Gospel tradition has been put forward principally to account for the supernatural element with which the New Testament is permeated: the objectivity of this element is refused recognition for reasons of a philosophical order, anterior to any criticism of the text. The starting-point of this explanation is a merely speculative prejudice. To the objection that the positions of Strauss became untenable the day that critics began to admit that the New Testament was a work of the first century, and therefore a witness closely following on the events, Harnack answers that twenty years or even less suffice for the formation of legends. As regards the abstract possibility of the formation of a legend that may be, but it still remain to be proved that it is possible that a legend should be formed, still more, that it should win acceptance, in the same concrete conditions as the Gospel narrative. How is it that the apocrypha never succeeded in forcing their way into the might current that bore the canonical writings to all the Churches, and got them accepted? Why were the oldest known to us not composed till at least a century after the events?
Furthermore, if the Gospel narrative is really an exegetical creation based on the Old Testament prophecies, how are we to explain its being what it is? There is no reference in it to texts of which the Messianic nature is patent and accepted by the Jewish schools. It is strange that the "legend" of the Magi come from the East at the summons of a star to adore the infant Jesus should have left aside completely the star of Jacob (Num., xxiv, 17) and the famous passage in Isaias, lx, 6-8. On the other hand, texts are appealed to of which the Messianism is not obvious, and which do not seem to have been commonly interpreted (then, at least) by the Jews in the same way as by the Christians. This is exactly the case with St. Matthew, ii, 15, 18, 23, and perhaps i, 23. The Evangelists represent Jesus as the popular preacher, par excellence, the orator of the crowd in town and country; they show Him to us whip in hand, and they out into His mouth words more stinging still addressed to the Pharisees. According to St. John (vii, 28, 37; xii, 44), He "cries out" even in the Temple. Can that trait in his physiognomy be readily explained by Isaias, xlii, 2, who had foretold of the servant of Yahweh: "He shall not cry nor have respect to person, neither shall his voice be heard abroad"? Again, "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb . . . and the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp" (Isaias, xi, 6-8) would have afforded material for a charming idyl, but the Evangelists have left that realism to the apocrypha and to the Millenarians. What passage of the Prophets or even of the Jewish apocalypse, inspired the first generation of Christians with the fundamental doctrine of the transitory character of the Law; and above all, with the prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple? Once one admits the initial step in this theory, he is logically led to leave nothing standing in the Gospel narrative, not even the crucifixion of Jesus, nor His existence itself. Solomon Reinach actually pretends that the Passion story is merely a commentary on Psalm xxi, while Arthur Drews denies the very existence of Jesus Christ.
Another factor which contributed to the alleged distortion of the Gospel story was the necessity imposed on primitive Christianity of altering, if it were to last, the conception of the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus in person. On His lips, it is said, the Gospel was merely a cry of "Sauve qui peut" addressed to the world which He believed to be about to end. Such was also the persuasion of the first Christian generation. But soon it was perceived that they had to do with a world which was to last, and the teaching of the Master had to be adapted to the new condition of things. This adaptation was not achieved without much violence, done, unconsciously, it is true, to historical reality, for the need was felt of deriving from the Gospel all the ecclesiastical institutions of a more recent date. Such is the eschatological explanation propagated particularly by J. Weiss, Schweitzer, Loisy; and favorably received by Pragmatists.
It is true that it was only later that the disciples understood the significance of certain words and acts of the Master. But to try and explain all the Gospel story was the retrospect of the second Christian generation is like trying to balance a pyramid on its apex. Indeed the hypothesis, in its general application, implies a state of mind hard to reconcile with the calmness and sincerity which is readily admitted in the Evangelists and St. Paul. As for the starting-point of the theory, namely, that Christ was the dupe of an illusion about the imminent destruction of the world, it has no foundation in the text, even for one who regards Christ as a mere man, except by distinguishing two kinds of discourses (and that on the strength of the theory itself), those that are traced back to Jesus, and those that have been attributed to Him afterwards. This is what is called a vicious circle. Finally, it is false that the second Christian generation was prepossessed by the idea of tracing, per fas et nefas, everything—institutions and doctrines—back to Jesus in person. The first generation itself decided more than once questions of the highest importance by referring not to Jesus but to the Holy Spirit and to the authority of the Apostles. This was especially the case with the Apostolic conference at Jerusalem (Acts, xv), in which it was to be decided in what concrete observances the Gospel was to take the place of the Law. St. Paul distinguishes expressly the doctrines or the institutions that he promulgates in virtue of his Apostolic authority, from the teachings that tradition traced back to Christ (I Cor., vii, 10, 12, 25).
Again it is to be presumed that if Christian tradition had been formed under the alleged influence, and that, with such historical freedom, there would remain less apparent contradictions. The trouble take by apologists to harmonize the texts of the New Testament is well known. If the appellation "Son of God" points out a new attitude of the Christian conscience towards Jesus Christ, why has it not simply replaced that of "Son of Man"? The survival of the Gospels of this latter expression, close by in the same texts with its equivalent (which alone showed clearly the actual faith of the Church, could only be an encumbrance; nay more, it remained as a telltale indication of the change that came—afterwards. It will be said perhaps that the evolution of popular beliefs, coming about instinctively and little by little, has nothing to do with the exigencies of a rational logic, and therefore has not coherence. Granted, but it must not be forgotten that, on the whole, the literature of the New Testament is a thoughtful, reasoned, and even apologetic work. Our adversaries can all the less deny it this character, as, according to them, the authors of the New Testament are "tendentious", that is to say, inclined more than is right to give a bias to things so as to make them acceptable.
They are: (1) specifically Christian; or (2) not specifically Christian.
Doctrines Not Specifically Christian
Christianity being the normal continuation of Judaism, the New Testament must needs inherit from the Old Testament a certain number of religious doctrines concerning God, His worship the original destinies of the world, and especially of men, the moral law, spirits, etc. Although these beliefs are not specifically Christian, the New Testament develops and perfects them.
- The attributes of God, particularly His spirituality, His immensity, His goodness, and above all His fatherhood are insisted on more fully.
- The moral law is restored to its primitive perfection in what regards the unity and perpetuity of marriage, respect for God's name, forgiveness of injuries, and in general the duties towards one's neighbours; the guilt of the simple desire of a thing forbidden by the Law is clearly set forth; external works (prayer, almsgiving, fasting, sacrifice) really derive their worth from the dispositions of the heart that accompany them.
- The Messianic hope is purified from the temporal and material elements with which it had become enveloped.
- The retributions of the world to come and the resurrection of the body are specified more clearly.
Specifically Christian Doctrines
Other doctrines, specifically Christian, are not added on to Judaism to develop, but rather to supersede it. In reality, between the New and Old Testaments there is a direct but not revolutionary succession as a superficial observer might be inclined to believe; just as in living beings, the imperfect state of yesterday must give way before the perfection of to-day although the one has normally prepared the other. If the mystery of the Trinity and the spiritual character of the Messianic Kingdom are ranked among the peculiarly Christian dogmas, it is because the Old Testament was of itself insufficient to establish the doctrine of the New Testament on this subject; and still more because, at the time of Jesus, the opinions current among the Jews went decidedly in the opposite direction.
- The Divine life common to the Three Persons (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) in the Unity of one and the same Nature is the mystery of the Trinity, obscurely typified or outlined in the Old Testament.
- The Messias promised by the Prophets has come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who was not only a man powerful in word and work, but the true God Himself, the Word made man, born of a virgin, crucified under Pontius Pilate, but risen from the dead and now exalted to the right hand of His Father.
- It was by an ignominious death on the Cross, and not by power and glory, that Jesus Christ redeemed the world from sin, death, and the anger of God; He is the Redeemer of all men (Gentiles as well as Jews) and He united them to Himself all without distinction.
- The Mosaic Law (rites and political theocracy) having been given only to the Jewish people, and that for a time, must disappear, as the figure before the reality. To these practices powerless in themselves Christ substitutes rites really sanctifying, especially baptism, eucharist, and penance. However the new economy is to such a degree a religion in spirit and truth, that, absolutely speaking, man can be saved, in the absence of all exterior means, by submitting himself fully to God by the faith and love of the Redeemer.
- Before Christ's coming, men had been treated by God as slaves or children under age are treated, but with the Gospel begins a law of love and liberty written first of all in the heart; this law does not consist merely in the letter which forbids, commands, or condemns; it is also, and chiefly, an interior grace which disposes the heart to do the will of God.
- The Kingdom of God preached and established by Jesus Christ, though it exists already visibly in the Church, will not be perfected until the end of the world (of which no one knows the day or the hour), when He will come Himself in power and majesty to render to each one according to his works. In the meantime, the Church assisted by the Holy Spirit, governed by the Apostles and their successors under the authority of Peter, teaches and propagates the Gospel even to the ends of the earth.
- Love of our neighbour is raised to the height of the love of God, because the Gospel makes us see God and Christ in all men since they are, or ought to be, His mystical members. When necessary, this love must be carried as far as the sacrifice of self. Such is Christ's commandment.
- Natural morality in the Gospel is raised to a higher sphere by the counsels of perfection (poverty and chastity), which may be summed up as the positive renouncement of the material goods of this life, in so far as they hinder our being completely given up to the service of God.
- Eternal life, which shall not be fully realized until after the resurrection of the body, consists in the possession of God, seen face to faces, and of Jesus Christ.
Such are the fundamental points of Christian dogma, as expressly taught in the New Testament. They are not found collected together in any of the Canonical books, but were written throughout a period extending from the middle of the first century to the beginning of the second; and, consequently, the history of the way in which they were expressed at different times can be reconstructed. These texts never could, and were never meant to, dispense with the oral tradition which preceded them. Without this perpetual commentary they would not always have been understood and frequently would have been misunderstood.