As we approach the Gospels, we do so with the desire to encounter the Risen Christ so that our faith relationship may deepen in and through Him. In this endeavor we need to have an overriding sense of how God is present in Salvation History. If we’re going to understand what is being said in the Gospels, we’ve got to understand that historical/cultural moment in which it was written—how the faith communities that composed the respective Gospel experienced the Risen Christ. As Catholics, we believe that Revelation occurs through Scripture and Tradition under the guidance of the Magisterium. Both of these are one stance removed from the primary place which is history itself, where God’s people are moving forward in history and learning how to believe in the Triune God, letting God guide them in their history.
Out of that experience comes Church and the written faith documents of our faith, called The Bible.
There are three stages in the formation of the Gospels: (1) the historical event itself—Jesus public ministry; (2) the remembrance and verbalization of the event; (3) formation of the Traditions or faith communities (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
(1) The Historical Jesus. The Apostles and disciples are experiencing the person of Jesus, his teaching, his struggle; they are experiencing it with him. This period was not more than three years, maybe less. We hardly know anything about the first 30 years of Jesus; life. Most of what we have is theology and reminiscences—e.g., Matthew’s Infancy Narrative, which isn’t historical in the strict sense but is a theological explanation of a basic historical event. The Gospels are not a chronological narrative: they weren’t stenographers, who went about recording Jesus’ teachings and modeling the Kingdom as they were happening. The important question is not whether it happened that way, but is about the Risen Christ here and now—we want to move to a present-tense Christianity: What is the Risen Christ revealing to us here and now?
(2) Oral Tradition. A primitive people preserved their tradition in memory, which were then told verbally. The remembrance is not to tell us what happened, but the meaning. To tell you the truth of what happened is not necessarily to give you a chronological account. Meaning does tell you the truth; physical space and chronological time doesn’t do that. The Kerygma, preaching period of the core beliefs of our Faith, lasted about 30 years. This 30 year old Oral Tradition verbalized about the public ministry of Jesus and was preached. This is the period of the Church occurred before the Bible. We don’t have the Bible from 30 to 100 a.d.; it’s not until the 2nd century that we speak of the books as the inspired Word of God. Christians at that time had the Church to lead them to Christ, which occurred within faith communities. The Church came before the Bible, which is a key point of Catholic theology. It’s faith communities and the context of faith communities that allow us to understand the Word of God. When you take the Bible out of faith community, you’re going to misinterpret it—making it individualistic and fundamentalist.
(3) Formation of Traditions of faith communities (the written stage). These faith communities were established c. 50-100 a.d.; Jesus had been physically gone for 20-70 years. They were documenting their understanding of Jesus as they can recall it and remember it for their purposes. So, they pick and choose what they need according to the problems in their community. Mark, for example, includes some things, whereas Matthew skips them because it doesn’t fit, which isn’t a problem for his community. Or, Matthew will change it, having Jesus say something quite different, or they add to what Jesus had said. We can ask, “What were they doing?” What they were doing was believing in the presence of the Risen Christ in their midst, which gave them inner authority assurance under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. What for us is taking liberties with the text was for them being simply honest and realistic: “We know Jesus. He lives in our community and here’s what Jesus would say.” This reflects an attitude that the Incarnation has not stopped: that Jesus continues to become flesh in the Body of Christ, the Church. The Gospels were composed by communities, not individual writers There were scribes and evangelists and disciples, who put them together for their present needs and understanding. While there may have been one inspired person, in actuality a community of say Matthew actually wrote the Gospel. All three stages are divine revelation. While the actual writing, composing, editing, and compiling occurred during the Apostolic Era, our understanding of Revelation continues to evolve. In other words, Divine Revelation is going on within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The Risen Christ is still revealing himself to our faith community; we have to have the same faith, the same Spirit to believe and to recognize that same Spirit in our communities.
The Gospels are authoritative, inspired. All three stages are historical, organically built on one another; our faith is based on the guidance and promise of the Spirit in the formation of the Gospels. “I am with you always” has always been a key point for Catholic theology. Under the guidance of the Magisterium, which has the authority to preserve, teach, and proclaim the Deposit of Faith and to govern our worship, we trust that God is the ultimate author of the Bible. We can look back at the historical stage, the oral tradition, and the written stage and see how the early Church moved one stage to another under the guidance of the Spirit. As they moved from ones stage to another, they preached out it, talked about it, built upon it; then 50 year later they wrote about it. To our way of thinking the actual writing may be very different from the event itself, but we trust that the Spirit is guiding us to receive the Divine Revelation. So, we take the Gospels as faith testaments and say that they are authoritative, inspired, and yet they are 50 years removed from the event. Why can we say that? Because we trust in the inspiration, indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
The Catholic faith is basically faith in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. That doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes—a cursory knowledge of Church history would challenge that contrary view. And, it doesn’t mean that we are hearing everything God wants us to receive. But, we trust that even in our partial listening that God is getting through and we commit ourselves to the stance of Samuel who said, “Speak, Lord for your servant is listening.”
The Gospel traditions sometimes contradict each other, which should be a problem for fundamentalists because they are presenting four different images of Christ with a great deal of unity. If were going to be faithful to Gospels, we have to be faithful to pluralformity and pluralism because we have different Christologies, ecclessialogies in the New Testament—there is not one way to interpreting the Gospels. Religion tends to control, so that we look to the text to justify what we want to control. An honest approach to Scriptures does not lead to a lessening of faith, but to an immediacy of faith—a present tense faith of looking for the Risen Christ here and now, instead of a preoccupation with the unimportant questions did it eactually happen in the exact way it was described. The significant questions are “Can it happen now? Can the life of Christ happen now? Can the Kingdom happen now? Is it happening now? How does it happen now?”
Fundamentalism refuses to listen to what the authors are really saying and what they intended to say to their communities. Fundamentalism does not listen to the meaning of the Gospels. Vatican II tells us that this the authoritative, inspired level of Scripture—what they were really saying to their contemporaries. What was Matthew saying in the year 80 to his contemporaries—that’s what’s inspired.
Fundamentalism enters into a non-historical love affair with words. It extracts the words from its historical context and says that these words mean in 2012. What that does is to trap them in their culgural moment in history, so they interpret the Gospels through their own eyes. They claim to believe in the authority of the Scripture, but they only believe in their own authority. So, a fundamentalist can never hear what the author is really saying, but only a reflection of their own historical ideas. In the name of taking the word literally, he misses the essential meaning. Our ordinary discourse contains metaphors, symbols to convey our basic meaning, which we accept and understand. So, the Church encourages us to use Biblical exegesis, including Literary Criticism (styles of writing), so that we may receive the Revelation under the guidance of the Church. Fundamentalism tends to disregard how people talk, the nature of language. It takes a myopic view of how ideas are communicated one to another.
The role of the Church is to help us understand what is it the authors are really saying to their historical situations and communities. Yes, we believe in the historical Christ, who is still present in history and that is the Risen Christ. It’s the historical Christ who communicated himself to the Twelve Apostles but it’s the Risen Christ who is guiding and influencing history for those who are willing to listen.
–Deacon Jim McFadden