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Were the Synoptic Gospels Composed in Hebrew?

Were the Synoptic Gospels Composed in Hebrew?

Forget what Winston Churchill said about Russia being “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Yes, it was a memorable line, but it should have been applied to modern biblical scholarship.

Here’s a field for those wanting to make a name for themselves, who want posterity to know about the Smith Hypothesis or the Jones Theory. You can come up with any idea you like, and you can do a sophisticated form of proof-texting establishing your thesis.

All you must do is cite in your notes the Usual Suspects–there are only two or three dozen names to get right–and Authority is on your side. Your work will become part of the “assured results of modern biblical scholarship.”

Unless, of course, you take an entirely new tack. Some things are simply off limits. People look down their noses at you, for instance, if you posit early dates for the authorship of the New Testament books.

Look at the cool reception the late John A. T. Robinson got when Redating the New Testament appeared in 1976. Robinson was already a well-respected scholar. More than that, he was a liberal scholar, founder of the New Morality school of thought, which started with his Honest to God.

But here he was, taking a fresh look at the presuppositions used in dating the New Testament books and realizing that the presuppositions were worthless. They were little more than prejudices.

He started from scratch and came up with the conclusion that every book of the New Testament was written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and even John he put as early as the forties, which, if true, would pretty much prove that the men whose names their bear wrote them.

Redating the New Testament was politely but not, for the most part, enthusiastically reviewed in the scholarly journals. What could one expect? People who had staked their reputations on dating the New Testament as late as possible–even, parts of it, well into the second century–were displeased that someone not able to be classified as a reactionary should come up with answers Augustine would have been comfortable with.

Robinson “worked from an exclusively historical methodology,” wrote Jean Carmignac in The Birth of the Synoptics. “I work with a methodology which is principally philological but historical on occasion.” Carmignac, a Dead Sea Scrolls translator and an expert in the Hebrew in use at the time of Christ, reached conclusions similar to Robinson’s, but he came at the problem from a different angle.

He translated the synoptic Gospels “backwards,” from Greek into Hebrew, and he was astonished at what he found.

“I wanted to begin with the Gospel of Mark. In order to facilitate the comparison between our Greek Gospels and the Hebrew text of Qumran, I tried, for my own personal use, to see what Mark would yield when translated back into the Hebrew of Qumran.

“I had imagined that this translation would be difficult because of considerable differences between Semitic thought and Greek thought, but I was absolutely dumbfounded to discover that this translation was, on the contrary, extremely easy.

“Around the middle of April 1963, after only one day of work, I was convinced that the Greek text of Mark could not have been redacted directly in Greek and that it was in reality only the Greek translation of an original Hebrew.”

Carmignac, who died recently, had planned for enormous difficulties, but they didn’t arise. He discovered the Greek translator of Mark had slavishly kept to the Hebrew word order and grammar.

Could this have been the result of a Semite writing in Greek, a language he didn’t know too well and on which he imposed Hebrew structures? Or could the awkward phrasings found in our Greek text have been nothing more than overly faithful translations (perhaps “transliterations” would be more accurate) of Semitic originals?

If the second possibility were true, then we have synoptic Gospels written by eyewitnesses at a very early date.

Carmignac spent most of the next twenty-five years meticulously translating the Greek into Hebrew and making endless comparisons. The Birth of the Synoptics is a popular summary of what he hoped to publish in a massive multi-volume set. It is a delightful shocker of a book.

Consider just one example. (Carmignac gives many, but his short book isn’t weighed down with them.) The Benedictus, the song of Zachary, is given in Luke 1:68-79. In Greek, as in English, the Benedictus, as poetry, seems unexceptional. There is no evidence of clever composition. But, when it is translated into Hebrew, a little marvel appears.

In the phrase “to show mercy to our fathers,” the expression “to show mercy” is the Hebrew verb hanan, which is the root of the name Yohanan (John).

In “he remembers his holy covenant,” “he remembers” is the verb zakar, which is the root of the name Zakaryah (Zachary).

In “the oath which he swore to our father Abraham” is found, for “to take an oath,” the verb shaba, which is the root of the name Elishaba (Elizabeth).

“Is it by chance,” asks Carmignac, “that the second strophe of this poem begins by a triple allusion to the names of the three protagonists: John, Zachary, Elizabeth? But this allusion only exists in Hebrew; the Greek or English translation does not preserve it.”

Carmignac gives many other examples, and he draws these conclusions about the dating of the synoptics: “The latest dates that can be admitted are around 50 for Mark . . . around 55 for Completed Mark, around 55-60 for Matthew, between 58 and 60 for Luke. But the earliest dates are clearly more probable: Mark around 42, Completed Mark around 45, (Hebrew) Matthew around 50, (Greek) Luke a little after 50.”

These dates are all approximate, of course, particularly those for Mark and Matthew, and they are the result of Carmignac’s mainly philological analysis.

Claude Tresmontant, in The Hebrew Christ, working parallel to Carmignac but with a different methodology, comes up with these datings: Matthew, early 30s (within a few years of the Resurrection); Luke 40-60; Mark 50-60.

Carmignac keeps to Marcan priority, while Tresmontant goes for Matthean priority. Regardless, each denies what is the majority opinion among biblical scholars, that the synoptics were written late in the first century, possibly into the last decade or two.

Carmignac draws a few other conclusions:

“(1) It is certain that Mark, Matthew, and the documents used by Luke were redacted in a Semitic language.

“(2) It is probable that this Semitic language is Hebrew rather than Aramaic.

“(3) It is sufficiently probable that our second Gospel [that is, Mark] was composed in a Semitic language by St. Peter the Apostle” (with Mark being his secretary perhaps).

Expanding on this last point, he says that “it is probable that the Semitic Gospel of Peter was translated into Greek, perhaps with some adaptations by Mark, in Rome, at the latest around the year 63; it is our second Gospel which has preserved the name of the translator, instead of that of the author.”

As he wrote The Birth of the Synoptics, Carmignac suspected his “scientific arguments [would] prove reassuring to Christians and [would] attract the attention and interest of non-believers. But they overturn theories presently in vogue and therefore they will be fiercely criticized.” They will also be, with Carmignac’s death, fiercely ignored.

But not forever. Truly honest scholars will have to grapple with what Carmignac has come up with. Others will continue where he left off. It may be, a few decades from now, that the “assured results of modern biblical scholarship” will look quite different from what we have been told to accept as gospel truth. 
— Karl Keating

The Birth of the Synoptics
By Jean Carmignac
Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1987
109 pages


Socrates Meets Liberal Theology


Imagine you’re a divinity student at a major university and you bump into a guy dressed like an ancient Athenian. What would you think? More importantly, would you accept your Christology from a man in a toga?

If you’re not quite sure how to answer, then Peter Kreeft’s Socrates Meets Jesus is must reading. The book is a dialogue between Socrates and some of the students and professors of “Have It University,” a major academic center in “Camp Rich, Massachusetts.”

Although the characters and the setting are tongue-in-cheek, the issues which Kreeft’s Socrates raises aren’t. He considers questions like, Who was (or is) Jesus?, Are miracles possible?, Did Christ really rise from the dead? In his search for answers, Socrates, the perennially “inquiring mind,” challenges contemporary liberal Christianity.

Socrates Meets Jesus isn’t a full-blown response to modern theology’s repudiation of traditional Christian dogmas, any more than Plato’s dialogues were systematic refutations of Stoicism or Epicurianism. It’s a challenge, a philosophical “rattling of the cage,” intended to provoke moderns to re-examine their presuppositions.

Two targets of the Great Gadfly’s cross-examination are a lecturer on science and religion named Flatland, who believes science has disproved the miraculous, and a Christology teacher and Bible demythologizer, Fesser, who, needless to say, doesn’t believe in the divinity of Christ or his Resurrection.

Socrates gets a shot at both. He confronts the contemporary religious presupposition which claims Christianity can be relevant only by discarding its outmoded doctrinal baggage. This theology claims traditional Christianity simply repeats old formulas and stale concepts, instead of providing real insights and relevant answers.

When confronted with a truly open-minded, relentless inquirer like Socrates, these allegedly free thinkers are the ones who have only empty formulas and unexamined assumptions to fall back on. Socrates shows how liberal religion’s emancipation from dogma is itself dogmatic.

“Christianity and water”–that’s how C. S. Lewis described liberal Christianity–can’t liberate because it’s in bondage to the spirit of the age. When people convert to Christianity, noted Lewis, they almost always come further in than that.

While liberal theology is supposed to be challenging and provocative, its proponents seldom risk anything remotely important enough to merit the adulation they receive. Liberal Christianity is, says Christopher Derrick, “something no Caesar would bother persecuting.”

It’s the assumptions which undergird liberal theology which Socrates Meets Jesus challenges. Take, for instance, the claim that modern science’s understanding of natural laws precludes a belief in the miraculous. Socrates shows how natural laws actually make miracles possible, not impossible–how you can’t have exceptions to the rule if you don’t have rules.

After all, scientific laws aren’t necessary in the way the laws of logic and mathematics are. Logic and mathematics will brook no contradictions. You can’t be and not be at the same time. Two plus two can’t equal five. Such things are unthinkable.

On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine natural laws being otherwise. Socrates makes this point in his conversation with Flatland, the lecturer on science and religion, when he asks, “You can’t conceive of a man both walking through a wall and not walking through a wall at the same time, can you? . . . But you can conceive of a man walking through a wall, can’t you?”

Miracles aren’t violations of scientific law so much as exceptions to the rule–the rule of how things usually, though not necessarily, work. To use one of Socrates’ examples, a miracle is like a gift of money in a bankbook balance. The extra money doesn’t contradict the balance, it only adds to it.

Socrates also criticizes the claim of Fesser, Have It Divinity School’s Christology teacher, that the Resurrection is a symbol of the union of power and goodness, but isn’t literally true. Through a series of questions Socrates concludes that if the Resurrection isn’t factual, then it’s not symbolic either:

“SOCRATES: Jesus the historical person did not have the power to rise from the dead, but Jesus the myth does?


“SOCRATES: And rising from the dead means power?


“SOCRATES: And Jesus represents goodness?


“SOCRATES:Then if Jesus didn’t really conquer death, it follows that goodness does not really have power. In that case, the meaning is not intact, is it? For if the Resurrection really happened, the meaning is that goodness has power, and if it didn’t really happen, then goodness does not have power.”

Paul made a similar point in 1 Corinthians 15:17: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins.”

Socrates Meets Jesusis a great book for a friend with liberal theological leanings, but it’s also for the Fundamentalist, the Evangelical, or the Catholic who distrusts any argument which doesn’t start with a Bible verse and end with a conversion.

The chapter in which Socrates investigates the difference between the Judeo-Christian God and the divinities of his day might prove useful for Mormons. After all, the Mormons’ view of God is closer to that of the ancient Greeks than to that of Judaism or Christianity. A Mormon who reads Socrates Meets Jesusmay not be convinced his idea of God is wrong, but at least he’ll know the difference between what he believes and the Judeo-Christian God.

As the title of the book indicates, Socrates eventually “meets Jesus” through his reading of the New Testament–not the demythologized Jesus of the form critics or the platitudinous Christ of the comparative religionists, but the real Jesus, the God-Man. This Jesus “suffered, died, and was buried” and “rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures.” It’s this Christ Kreeft wants to introduce, through Socrates, to his readers in this book of wit and charm. 
— Mark Brumley

Socrates Meets Jesus
By Peter Kreeft
Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1987
182 pages


A Mormon Eyes the Papacy


Pope-bashing has long been a favorite pastime in certain circles. Everyone from John Calvin to Ellen G. White to Jack Chick–folks who otherwise have little in common theologically–have been united in their hatred of the papacy. 

Lurid anti-papal books and sermons are nothing new, and Catholics who deal with Fundamentalists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and miscellaneous anti-Catholics have come to expect anti-papal slurs. 

It’s unusual, therefore, to chance upon a book, written by a non-Catholic, which discusses the papacy if not positively, at least evenhandedly. It’s astonishing, though, to encounter such a book written by a Mormon. 

Peter and the Popes written by retired B.Y.U. professor A. Burt Horsley, provides a fascinating look at the papacy from the Mormon perspective. 

After receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy, Horsley spent several years in Europe studying Protestant history. A scrutiny of the Reformation led him to an interest in the the papacy. In 1965 he worked on a sabbatical research project at the Vatican Library and was an observer at Vatican II. 

Peter and the Popes focuses on two.aspects of the papacy: the history of the institution (including glimpses into the private lives of the bad popes as well as recognition of the virtue and achievements of the saintly popes) and the development of the doctrine of infallibility, of the primacy of the Roman bishop, and of the sacrament of holy orders. 

This book will both intrigue and disappoint Catholics. It will intrigue because it provides Catholics with a view of the papacy as Mormons see it. It will disappoint because the author does little to conceal his desire to debunk, however gently, the idea of apostolic succession, thus giving the impression that he entirely missed the meaning of the papacy–the living symbol of Catholic unity and vitality, perpetuated intact from Peter to John Paul II. 

Horsley’s style is engaging, his tone calm, his information well- ordered and reasonably accurate, but his desire to portray the papacy as theologically and historically unviable is manifest on every page. 

The underlying premise is that the original Christian Church was Mormon, not Catholic. After the death of the last apostle, religious syncretism corrupted the gospel so that the true Church (read: the Mormon Church) was removed from the face of the Earth and was supplanted by the Catholic Church. As Horsley (and as all Mormondom) sees it, the papacy, a by-product of this syncretism, is the illegitimate successor of the role of the Mormon Prophet. 

In an effort to draw the reader to this same conclusion Horsley traces the historical development of the papacy from Peter to the present day and, like a dutiful tour guide, is at pains to point out the more unsavory papal characters and their scandals. 

Still, the author succeeds in identifying the real issue: “The claim of the Catholic Church rests on the idea that the authority bestowed upon Peter has been perpetuated through the centuries in the papacy. Latter-day Saints accept the presidency [primacy] of Peter but take the position that the Church was to be built upon the Rock of revelation–not on Peter. 

“Further, the point at issue between Latter-day Saints and Catholics is whether there has been an inspired perpetuation and transmission of Petrine primacy or a deviation and departure from the spirit and intent of the conferred divine commission, as recorded in the New Testament” (pages 29-30). 

Horsley isn’t above getting in a few gratuitous digs: “In the case of Peter, the story [of the papacy] has its beginning in Scripture and its ending in the never-never wasteland of Roman-Christian legend and tradition” (page 4). 

On the brighter side, Horsley’s observations can be downright complimentary. “The recent popes have been inclined to give their attention and their lives in a dedicated way to things spiritual, and to the interests of Christianity and particularly to world Catholicism. 

“Among popes of the modern period, one would look in vain for anyone who has in any way disgraced the office of the papacy because of misconduct in the manner identified with the age of pornocracy [the ninth through eleventh centuries]. These leaders have usually been men well trained in theology, men of high standards and high ideals. 

“We [Mormons] see in them a sense of fulfillment of the Christian ideal as they seek to represent, in the way they understand and in keeping with the tradition as best they are able, the mission of Peter to the world” (page 120). 

Even though his religion contends the Catholic Church is the very embodiment of the Great Apostasy, Horsley seems to harbor a secret admiration for, and perhaps even a sense of envy at, the longevity and accomplishments of the Catholic Church under the leadership of the popes. 

Such tacit admiration of Catholicism is not uncommon among Mormons. They and all non-Catholics who marvel furtively at the papacy’s ability to survive intact nearly 2000 years of challenge and turmoil would do well to contemplate Gamaliel’s words in Acts 5:38-39. 

Ironically, Peter and the Popess valuable mainly because it wasn’t written for Catholics but for Mormons. (You won’t find it for sale anywhere but in Mormon book stores.) Reading this book is much like overhearing a private conversation in which people discuss the things they like and dislike about you. 

Since they don’t intend for you to hear their remarks, you know you’re hearing what they really think. What they say causes you to alternate between feelings of indignation and vindication. 

Sure, a Catholic will think the conclusions Horsley draws are often incorrect, but the fact that a Mormon has made an effort to examine Catholicism from a thoughtful, scholarly point of view is a good thing. It’s good for Mormons and good for Catholics because it’s a step toward dialogue and mutual understanding. 
— Patrick Madrid

Peter and the Popes
By A. Burt Horsley
Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989
152 pages

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