JMC : Witness of the Gospels / by A.S. Barnes

Attacks on the Credibility of the Gospels

Higher Criticism

The bad name which the so-called "Higher Criticism" has acquired in the minds of many people is due to the way in which attacks upon generally accepted beliefs, many of them of a most unscientific character, have sheltered themselves under its name and tried to claim its authority.

Reasoning of Tubingen School

Perhaps the best known and most important of these attacks were those which were put forth about the middle of the last century by the critical school of Tubingen, and especially by its most brilliant member, Ferdinand Baur. The criticism made by this school of writers was not, as is now generally recognised, absolutely scientific in character, since it was undoubtedly influenced by the desire of supporting certain preconceived ideas, each of which, no doubt, contained an element of truth, but which were pressed much too far by these men, with the natural result of vitiating all their work. These preconceived ideas were, first, that the key to the right interpretation of the history of the earliest centuries was to be found in the existence of a constant and vehement antagonism between the Jewish and the Gentile members of the Church, and especially between the two great leaders on either side -- St Peter and St Paul. They considered that all documents of the period must necessarily bear the marks of this great struggle so plainly impressed upon them as to be capable of being classified according to "tendency," and consequently, that their date and authorship could generally be deduced in this way. The second assumption was that miracles are always and in all cases to be considered as impossible, and, therefore, that all accounts which involve a miracle are necessarily mythical. Now myth, they argued, is itself always the product of time, and requires a considerable period for its growth. It follows therefore, of course, that any story which contains a miraculous element must, so far, be admitted not to be contemporary, but to have grown up by slow degrees as time went on.

Results of this Reasoning

The net result of this reasoning, when applied to the criticism of the Gospels, was, of course, to favour the placing the date of their composition at as late a period as was otherwise consistent with the evidence, in order to give time for the gradual growth of the miraculous element which is so marked a characteristic of them all. The scantiness of the available evidence made their task easier than would otherwise have been the case, and in consequence they were able to put forward with a considerable show of learning their conclusion that no one of the Gospels could be assigned to any author of the Apostolic Age, but all alike must be considered as products of the second century, and in some cases of the latter half of that century, based, no doubt, upon tradition, but not to be reckoned as possessing any historical value in the strict sense of the words.

Refutation of these Results by more Modern Criticism

Modern criticism, at any rate since the middle of the last century, has been a slow but steady and continuous refutation of the extreme positions which were then put forward. It has been, in the words of Professor Harnack, who bears, perhaps, the most distinguished name in this branch of learning, "a return towards tradition" -- a return which has already gone so far that on several points the old traditional view, on which such scorn was poured fifty years ago by those who then thought themselves in the van of progress, is now rehabilitated and acknowledged to be the only one which can be reconciled with the actual facts as they are now known to us. Although the Gospel of St John is still the subject of much controversy, we have travelled very far from the days when the Gospels could be assigned to the latter half of the second century; and so far as the three other Gospels are concerned, Catholics need not shrink from accepting the dates which are suggested in such books as those, for instance, of Professor Harnack, who places the composition of the Gospel of St Mark about A.D. 65-70, and those of St Matthew and St Luke not later than ten or fifteen years after the fall of Jerusalem. These results give us almost the very dates which have always been assigned to these Gospels by the traditions of the Church. I shall try, however, in this present lecture to show you that even earlier dates than these must be assigned for the original writing down of most of the material out of which the Gospels have been compiled.

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