09 April 2014

The Map is Not the Territory: Herodotus and the Myth of Hoplite Battle

Another piece from the archives -- April 2003, believe it or not -- where it's just been gathering dust...

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There was an article in the New York Times last week, examining the books which have had the greatest impact of late in the White House. Last Autumn Dick Cheney read An Autumn of War by Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and military historian, whom he later invited to dinner. Cheney told his aides that Hanson’s writings reflected his philosophy. In An Autumn of War Hanson wrote approvingly of the ancient Greek view of war as ‘terrible but innate to civilization — and not always unjust or amoral if it is waged for good causes to destroy evil and save the innocent.’ He asserted that we were in an ‘outright bloody war against tyranny, intolerance and theocracy,’ and he called for going to war ‘hard, long, without guilt, apology or respite until our enemies are no more.’[1]

Hanson has long argued that the ‘Hoplite Battle’ was the central military act in ancient Greece. This ‘Hoplite Battle’ was a swift and decisive clash of well-armed social equals, fighting and willing to die in defence of their lands. These social equals, Hanson believes, relied not on ruse or cunning for victory, instead depending on their own courage, discipline, and martial skill. E.M. Walker, writing in the first edition of the Cambridge Ancient History elegantly explained that ‘To the Greeks a battle was in the nature of a duel; it was an agon, in which honour was satisfied and the pursuit ceased when the enemy acknowledged defeat by asking for a truce for the burial of his dead.’ Such battles were almost inevitably ritualistic, as W.R. Connor argues in his 1988 article on the symbolism of early Greek land warfare.

This model of hoplite battle generated by believers in a Greek way of war is well-known and generally accepted. 

The opposing armies would deploy on a plain, typically agricultural land at the edge of the invaded territory. Often organised by tribal regiments, arrayed in a line with the best men stationed in the front and rear ranks, the heavy infantry would be protected on the flanks by light infantry and cavalry. Omens would be taken, and sacrificial animals slaughtered in a ritual shedding of blood. Commanders would address their men, and the signal for battle would be given. Both armies would advance, covering the last hundred or so yards at a run. It seems unlikely that the two armies collided at full tilt, but when they met a giant melee of pushing and stabbing would begin. Men must have fallen, whether dead or wounded, or simply because they lost their footing due to pressure from behind. As men fell, gaps would have appeared in the front lines, which enemy hoplites sought to enlarge; eventually the pushing – the othismos – would enable one army to penetrate the enemy line. This breaching of the line, the pararrhexis – was a sure sign of defeat, and the army whose line had been broken would turn and run. The victorious army would generally not pursue for long, instead opting to make the battlefield its own; they stripped the armour from the enemy dead and gathered their own dead for burial. A victory marker, called a tropaion, would be erected at the spot where the enemy line had been broken and the enemy had turned and fled. The defeated army, having regrouped, would send a herald to request a truce to enable them to retrieve their dead: this request was an admission of defeat; indicating that the outcome of the battle had been accepted

The basic origins of this thesis are clear enough. In a famous speech he attributes to the Persian Mardonius,[2] Herodotus describes the Greek Way of War, noting that:
‘When they have declared war against each other, they come down to the fairest and most level ground that they can find and there they fight, so that the victors come not off without great harm; and of the vanquished I say not so much as a word, for they are utterly destroyed.’ (Hdt. 7.9)
This passage from Herodotus is generally taken at face value and reinforced by passages from Thucydides,[3] Demosthenes,[4] and particularly Polybius [5] in order to gain an insight into the ‘Greek Way of War’.

The problem with these passages is that they all highly rhetorical; they are hardly sober reflections on the nature of contemporary warfare. The core passage from Herodotus is exceptionally complex, loaded with problems and ambiguities. Remember at all times that this speech surely does not represent anything Mardonius said; rather these words have been put into his mouth by the Greek Herodotus. Why? In the first place its main function is to show the heroism of the free Greeks, who are willing to die to defend their homeland; unlike, in this respect they stand in sharp contrast to the Persians, who like to fight their wars without unnecessary casualties. The Greek willingness to sustain casualties horrifies Mardonius; yet modern calculations suggest that in most Greek battles the defeated army would suffer perhaps 14 or 15 per cent losses, with the victor losing only one man in twenty. It is also odd to see a Persian being surprised at the Greek desire for decisive battle, since earlier in his account Herodotus shows the Persians as deeply exasperated by the Scythian refusal to face them in the open field; the Scythian scorched earth policy so infuriated the Persians that Darius supposedly wrote to the Scythian king to ask him to face the Persians in the open field (Hdt. 4.126). The historicity of this letter may be questionable, but of more interest is the fact that when it suited his purposes, Herodotus was quite capable of presenting the Persians as devotees of decisive battle.

It’s also odd that Herodotus represents Mardonius as seeing the Greeks as tactically inept and not inclined to use terrain to their advantage; think what happened at Thermopylae, one of history’s finest examples of the tactical use of terrain (Hdt. 7.201-228; Diod. 11.6-10). Is Herodotus simply saying that the Persians misunderstood the Greek capacity for flexibility in warfare?

Consider the passages from Demosthenes (9.47-52) and Polybius (13.3.2-7): both men are harking back to a Golden Age of Hoplite Warfare that may never have existed. Polybius appears to be talking about the Lelantine War, more than five centuries before his own day. And Demosthenes is praising the honourable methods of the old Spartan enemies, despite the fact that in the funeral speech ascribed to him by Thucydides, Pericles scorned those very Spartans for their reliance on stratagems and ruses! (Thuc. 2.39.1) The rhetorical content of both passages renders them automatically suspect. Even the passage from Thucydides (4.126.5-6), who at least knew what he was talking about, is not entirely safe. After all, it purports to represent what Brasidas said to inspire a force of troops who were relatively new to hoplite warfare, as they were feeling threatened by ‘savage’ Illyrians. It is hardly surprising that he would laud their method of warfare.

We need to keep these issues in mind, as when presented with a picture as compelling as that drawn by Hanson, it is all too easy to forget that this is a ‘model’ or an ‘ideal type’. It is a tool to enable us to gain understanding of Greek battle, synthesizing features which are common to many, but by no means all, Greek battles in an attempt to manufacture a mental construct which never ‘really’ existed. This does not mean that the model is useless, simply that we have to be careful how we apply it. There’s a school of ‘pop psychology’ called Neuro-Linguistic Programming, one of the central principles of which is that ‘The map is not the territory’. Regardless of the merits or otherwise of NLP, when it comes to Greek Warfare we should make a point of keeping in mind this distinction between maps and territories.

Consider firstly the claim that the ‘Hoplite Battle’ was the central act of Greek warfare. This claim simply doesn’t bear serious scrutiny. It is, frankly, disingenuous to speak of ‘Greek warfare’ and ‘hoplite warfare’ as if the two were synonymous. In Thessaly, for instance, cavalry was the dominant military arm; this is hardly surprising when one envisages the Thessalian landscape’s plains and gently rolling hills (Plat., Leg. 1.625d); there appear to have been Thessalian hoplites, but they were less significant than the cavalry (Xen., Hell. 6.1.8-9). The ‘primitive’ Greeks in the mountains of western Greece, such as the Acharnanians, Aetolians, and Ozolian Locrians, fought as lightly-armed missile troops, specialising in skirmishes and ambushes (Thuc. 1.5, 3.94, 97-8). The Cretans and Rhodians were famous for their skills with the bow and sling, respectively. The Greeks of the island poleis may have been more inclined to naval rather than land warfare – after all, who were they going to fight? The Sicilian Greeks appear to have relied far more on their cavalry than on their hoplites; Thucydides’ account of the early stages of Athens’ doomed Sicilian expedition indicates that the Syracusan hoplites were inexperienced and ineffective, unlike their potent cavalry and missile troops.

It could be countered that although these states were all Greek, none of them was truly a mainstream Greek society. What of the Greeks in the ‘hoplite heartland’ of the Peloponnese, Central Greece, and Euboea? For states such as Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Corinth, Argos, Plataea, and so forth, warfare generally meant hoplite warfare. But in some respects the very term ‘hoplite warfare’ seems meaningless. In the first place, as Louis Rawlings has argued, hoplite warfare did not solely consist of battles. Hoplites could on occasion fight as marines, and could serve a police function or perform garrison duties, as well as participating in raids and reprisals – effectively acts of guerrilla warfare.

In addition to this, the Hanson thesis assumes that Greek warfare followed an uninterrupted learning curve, where two centuries or more of ‘pure’ hoplite warfare came to an end with the Persian Wars, after which hoplite battle became more and more sophisticated over the course of the Peloponnesian Wars and the Theban Hegemony. Such an assumption is unwarranted, and is lacking in evidence, as there is hardly any evidence for how battles were fought before Marathon, and what little evidence there is appears to contradict Hanson’s idea. Furthermore, this thesis ignores cultural differences between various Greek states and assumes that all hoplite armies fought in an essentially identical fashion, which was not the case.

Consider the Athenian army, which appears to have been officially mobilised very rarely before the late sixth century. Scythian archers were a common subject on Athenian vase paintings in this period; curiously, on some vases they are shown as operating in association with the regular infantry, shooting from between the hoplites of the front ranks. They are reminiscent of the archers in the Iliad, relying on their comrades’ shields for protection (Hom., Il. 4.112-4, 8.266-72). It might seem unsafe to rely on Vase illustrations as evidence for Athenian warfare during the ‘Golden Age of Hoplite Battle’, but this notion of missile troops being deployed amongst the hoplites seems to have been a Spartan practice during the seventh century. Several passages from Tyrtaeus testify to the importance of missile troops in early Spartan warfare, notably when he exhorts them as follows:
‘And you, light-armed, squatting under a shield here and there, must throw great rocks and hurl smooth javelins while you stand close to the heavy armed.’ (Tyrt. Fr. 11.35-8)
Lest we be tempted to argue that missile troops were integrated into the Spartan army only in its early history, it is worth contemplating Herodotus’ somewhat cryptic statement that each Spartan at the battle of Plataea was accompanied by seven helots, while a single helot accompanied each hoplite of the perioikoi. These helots were equipped as light-armed missile troops, and were reportedly ‘in attendance’ on the hoplites, which probably indicates that they were not deployed simply on the flanks (Hdt. 9.10.1, 9.29.1). This is irreconcilable with the notion of hoplite battle as a battle of equals, with the disdain supposedly felt by hoplites for the use of missiles in battle, and with the basic notion of hoplite tactics being based on solid lines of heavily armed infantrymen.

Thucydides makes Pericles scorn the Spartans for their reliance on trickery, and their tactics at Thermopylae seem to defy everything that the model of ‘Hoplite Battle’ takes for granted. Herodotus claims that the Spartan hoplites at Thermopylae turned and pretended to flee, only to turn back and strike the Persians who had broken ranks and fallen into disorder in attempting to press their apparent advantage (Hdt. 7.211.3). Such a stratagem looks decidedly unGreek, foreshadowing the famous ‘Parthian Shot’ or even Mongol tactics. It might not be surprising that the Spartans should have been capable of such a manoeuvre, though, considering the fact that unlike the free citizen militias so feted by Hanson, they were in effect professional soldiers who engaged in a life-long training programme. Even the Athenian phalanx at Marathon, however, appears to have exhibited a degree of flexibility unimaginable for the phalanxes we read of in the pages of Thucydides and Xenophon; or at least unimaginable for their phalanxes as seen through the prism of our model of ‘hoplite battle’ (Hdt. 6.113).

If the Spartans and Athenians offer exceptions to the model of ‘Hoplite Battle’, the Thebans stand out in blatant defiance of it. The hoplite infantry was indeed the dominant military arm in Boeotia, but the aristocratic cavalry played a crucial role in Boeotian battles, notably the Boeotian victory over Athens at Delium in 424 (Thuc. 4.90-6). The Boeotian cavalry pursued the defeated Athenians until nightfall; this murderous pursuit cost the Athenians dearly and was hardly in accordance with the spirit of ‘Hoplite Battle’ (4.96.8, 101.2). What’s more, the cavalry had been instrumental in the Boeotian victory, rather than just its aftermath. The Boeotian left wing had been under pressure from the Athenian right, so Pagondas sent two cavalry squadrons to support the beleaguered infantry. The cavalry rode behind a hill, staying out of sight, and appeared in such a way as to surprise the Athenians who broke and fled, thinking that a new army had arrived (4.96.5-6). Such reliance on surprise might seem contrary to the openness so characteristic of conventional model of ‘Hoplite Battle’, but it was clearly not regarded as dishonourable among the Boeotians: it seems clear that the Boeotian victory over Athens at Coronea in 446 was regarded as a heroic victory (3.62.5, 67.3, 4.92.6), despite being an ambush rather than a set-piece battle (1.113.2).

The notion of the ambush at Coronea being a decisive battle – and it surely was decisive – is an interesting one, as it forces the question of what Greeks thought of when they spoke of battle. When Greeks spoke of battle, did they automatically mean the set-piece hoplite battle as envisaged by Hanson, and apparently as indicated by Herodotus in his Mardonius speech? Hanson argues, following Pritchett, that the existence of an extensive vocabulary devoted purely to set-piece hoplite battles demonstrates the centrality of shock battle to Greek culture. The careful delineation of the set-piece battle's various stages and areas of the battlefield might support this thesis, but while this certainly might indicate how important shock battle was to the Greeks, it might equally mean nothing more than that that unlike other forms of military engagement, the pitched battle between hoplites had easily distinguished components. After all, the fact that an activity has its own jargon hardly indicates how important it was to the wider culture.

Such pitched battles were known as ‘drawn-ups,’ as ‘battles by agreement,’ as ‘battles in the plain,’ and as battles that were ‘just and open.’ The problem with this analysis is that with the exception of parataxis – ‘drawn-up’ – these terms are quite rare in our sources. This perhaps suggesting that the pitched battle was a far less frequent occurrence than modern writers would like to admit. There is no doubt, for instance, that the battle of Coronea in 446, as mentioned already, was a fully-credited battle, but it would be hard to use any of the terms Pritchett and Hanson cite to describe it. Or look at the battles of Sphacteria in 425 or Amphipolis in 421 – both battles were notable for the asymmetry of the opposing sides’ losses – for example, seven of Brasidas’ men fell at Amphipolis, as against 600 or so of Cleon’s – this asymmetry is attributed by Thucydides to neither battle being a pitched or drawn up battle (Thuc, 4.38.5, 5.11.2). But even the term parataxis was not used exclusively to refer to hoplite battles. Xenophon uses the term for cavalry formations (Hell. 4.3.5, 7.5.23), and Polybius uses it not specifically for Greek infantry encounters, but also for battles between Romans and Gauls (2.18.2, 2.26.8), Romans and Gauls and Etruscans together (2.20.2, 4), and Macedonian phalangites against Illyrians (2.70.6).

Other terms for battle are frustratingly vague, and are never applied in a manner exclusive to the pitched hoplite battle. The Homeric term ponos, used by Herodotus on occasion, really just means ‘toil’ or ‘struggle’ (Hom., Il. 6.77; Hdt. 6.114, 7.224.1), and the verb symballein, conveying the sense of ‘coming together’ is used to refer to battle in a vague sense by both Homer and Herodotus (Hom., Il. 3.70, 20.55; Hdt. 1.77, 1.82, 7.210.2). Kindunos, meaning ‘danger’ or ‘risk’, is used frequently by Polybius (1.33.4, 34.9, 2.28.9, 3.84.15), but again has no specific application to hoplite warfare, and even agon, which basically means ‘contest’, is usually applied to battles in a largely metaphorical way, whether by Phormio addressing his men (Th.2.89.8) or Polybius describing the battles of the Trebia or Cannae (3.71.5, 116.2).

The term mache is indiscrimately applied to battles of all sorts by Greek writers. It implies virtually nothing about the nature of the fighting which took place. Homer uses it constantly for mass fighting, but also occasionally for single combat (Il. 7.263, 11.255, 11.542). Herodotus describes pitched battles such as Marathon and Plataea as machai (6.117.1, 9.69.1), but also uses the term to mean simply a style of warfare, as practised by the Lydian cavalry, the Sagartians, or even the Greeks, in the Mardonius speech (1.79, 7.85.2, 7.9.1). Thucydides uses the term in a broad sense for the encounters at Sphacteria (4.39.1), Delium (4.93.2, 95.2, 101.1, 101.3), Amphipolis (5.11.2, 12.2), and Mantinea (5.74.1, 75.1, 75.4). This is particularly striking, when we remember that he specifically said that neither Sphacteria nor Amphipolis was a pitched battle; it might seem odd that he does not apply any more precise term than mache to describe Mantinea, say. Xenophon also uses this vague, generalised word when he writes of such classic set-piece encounters as the Nemea River, second Coronea, Leuctra, and second Mantinea (Hell. 4.2.23, 4.3.16, 6.4.8, 7.5.27); but also uses it in the famous ‘Tearless Battle’ of 368 (Hell. 7.1.32), even though this was not even a battle; no fighting took place, only the slaughter of fleeing Argives and Arcadians.

Where does this leave us? The ‘hoplite battle’ is to some extent a chimera; set piece battles took place on a surprisingly infrequent basis. Interstate warfare was indeed a commonplace of Greek life, but when we read that a battle took place, we should not automatically assume that it was a pitched battle between two similarly armed and trained groups of hoplites. Ancient rhetoric has led modern writers to ignore the evidence, and instead to force the facts that we have to fit a flawed and generalised theory. Herodotus’ celebrated description of the Greek way of war, although it is very useful for studying the ideology of what set-piece battles did take place, does not provide us with a microscope to scrutinise all ancient battle accounts. Rather, it is a distorting mirror, warping the way we study Greek warfare. Without Herodotus to lead us astray we might not have been tempted to assume a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of Greek warfare, and would have recognised that there was no ‘Greek Way of War’. Greece in the Archaic and Classical periods is best viewed as a military matrix, throwing up many variants on how heavily-armed infantry could be used in battle, with or without the assistance of cavalry, missile troops, or even ships.

University of Warwick, April 2003.




[1] Kakutani, Michiko, ‘Critic’s Notebook; How Books Have Shaped U.S. Policy’, New York Times, April 5, 2003, Late Edition – Final, Section D, Page 7, Column 5.

[2] Yet wars the Greeks do wage, and, as I learn, most senselessly they do it, in their wrongheadedness and folly. When they have declared war against each other, they come down to the fairest and most level ground that they can find and there they fight, so that the victors come not off without great harm; and of the vanquished I say not so much as a word, for they are utterly destroyed. Yet speaking as they do the same language, they should end this dispute by the means of herald and messengers, and by any means other than fighting; or if needs must that they war against each other, they should discover each where the strongest defence lies, and there make his essay. (Hdt. 7.9.2)

[3] Now as for these Illyrians, for those who have had no experience of them, the menace of their attack has terror; for their number is indeed dreadful to behold and the loudness of their battle-cry is intolerable, and the idle brandishing of their arms has a threatening effect. But for hand-to-hand fighting, if their opponents but endure such threats, they are not the men they seem; for having no regular order, they would not be ashamed to abandon any position when hard pressed; and since flight and attack are considered equally honourable with them, their courage cannot be put to the test. Besides, a mode of fighting in which everyone is his own master will provide a man the best excuse for saving himself becomingly. They think, too, that it is a less risky game to try to frighten you from a safe distance than to meet you hand to hand; otherwise they would not have taken this course in preference to that. And so you clearly see that all that was at first formidable about them is but little in reality, startling merely to eye and ear. If you withstand all this in the first onrush, and then, whenever opportunity offers, withdraw again in orderly array, you will the sooner reach safety, and will hereafter know that mobs like these, if an adversary but sustain their first onset, merely make a flourish of valour with threats from afar in menace of attack, but if one yields to them, they are right upon his heels, quick enough to display their courage when all is safe. (Thuc.4.126.5-6)

[4] But for my own part, while practically all the arts have made a great advance and we are living today in a very different world from the old one, I consider that nothing has been more developed and improved than the art of war. For in the first place I am informed that in those days the Lacedaemonians, like everyone else, would spend the four or five months of the summer “season” in invading and laying waste the enemy’s territory with heavy infantry and levies of citizens, and would then retire home again; and they were so old-fashioned, or rather such good citizens, that they never used money to buy an advantage from anyone, but their fighting was of the fair and open kind. But now you must surely see that most disasters are due to traitors, and none are the result of a regular pitched battle. On the other hand you hear of Philip marching unchecked, not because he leads a phalanx of heavy infantry, but because he is accompanied by skirmishers, cavalry, archers, mercenaries, and similar troops. When, relying on this force, he attacks some people that is at variance with itself, and when through distrust no one goes forth to fight for his country, then he brings up his artillery and lays siege.  I need hardly tell you that he makes no difference between summer and winter and has no season set apart for inaction. […] For so far as a campaign is concerned, provided, men of Athens, we are willing to do what is necessary, we have many advantages, such as the nature of his territory, much of which may be harried and devastated, and countless others; but for a pitched battle [agōn] he is in better training than we are. (Dem. 9.47-52)

[5] The ancients, as we know, were far removed from such malpractices. For so far were they from plotting mischief against their friends with the purpose of aggrandizing their own power, that they would not even consent to get the better of their enemies by fraud, regarding no success as brilliant or secure unless they crushed the spirit of their adversaries in open battle. For this reason they entered into a convention among themselves to use against each other neither secret missiles nor those discharged from a distance, and considered that it was only a hand-to-hand battle at close quarters that was truly decisive. Hence they preceded war by a declaration, and when they intended to do battle gave notice of the fact and of the spot to which they would proceed and array their army. But at the present they say it is a sign of poor generalship to do anything openly in war. Some slight traces, however, of the ancient principles of warfare survive among the Romans. For they make declaration of war, they very seldom use ambuscades, and they fight hand-to-hand at close quarters. (Polyb. 13.3.2-7)

18 March 2014

A note on New Testament authorship...

About a month or so back, I got into a discussion about the authorship of New Testament texts, with me being told quite firmly that it was only in the late second century that the canonical Gospels first became associated with the evangelists to whom they're traditionally attributed. As you can imagine, I responded with equal firmness that this most certainly wasn't the case, and, well, after a short gallop through the data I was asked to sum up what I'd said in writing and to say why I thought this mattered. In the end, I thought it best to outline the whole case with the summary tagged on at the end as a kind of précis. Like so.



Early Associations With Authors
Irenaeus of Lyons, writing around 180, is the first extant author who can be said beyond reasonable doubt to identify the four canonical Gospels: he speaks of the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John, and criticises those groups that use only one of these Gospels to the exclusion of the others. It’s telling that he does not present his association of these Gospels with these authors as a novelty; rather, this is something he expects his audience to take for granted, as an established fact.

If the original form of the Muratorian Canon can be dated to 170 or so, we can recognise a slightly earlier instance of an author associating the four Gospels with their conventional authors, but leaving aside how the text of the Canon is incomplete, the dating is far from safe.

More interesting is Justin Martyr’s Apology, dating to 150 or so and recording how Christians of his era would attend Mass where ‘the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read’; Justin obviously says nothing more specific, given his audience, but he appears to be testifying here to how Christians of the mid-second century regarded the Gospels as the apostles’ personal accounts of their time with Jesus. This was around the time, of course, when Marcion was proposing a limited but real Biblical canon composed only of a carefully-pruned Luke and the Pauline letters.

Earlier still, in the first decades of the century we have Papias, fragments of whose texts survive in the writings of Irenaeus and Eusebius; Irenaeus describes him as a pupil of John and peer of Polycarp, as well as the author of the five-volume The Sayings of the Lord Explained. This was still extant in Eusebius’ day, and Eusebius quotes from it to clarify that it was ‘the Presbyter John’ who Papias knew, rather than the Apostle John. He quotes Papias as quoting said Presbyter John:

‘Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings. For he had not heard the Lord or been one of His followers, but later, as I said, one of Peter’s. Peter used to adapt his teachings to the occasion, without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark was quite justified in writing down some things just as he remembered them. For he had one purpose only – to leave out nothing that he had heard, and to make no misstatement about it.’

Traditions do not come from nowhere, after all, so it’s hardly surprising that Papias, writing no later than 130, would have believed what he did on the basis of what a teacher of an earlier generation would have told him. Nor should we be surprised that prominent Christians in Asia Minor should have been so familiar with a Roman text like Mark: communications were remarkably fast in the Empire, and we shouldn’t think of Christian communities, any more than any other ancient communities, as isolated backwaters.

Eusebius also quotes Papias as saying of Matthew that, ‘Matthew compiled the Sayings in the Aramaic language, and everyone translated them as well as he could.’ It seems that in the early second century it was thought that Matthew had written a kind of Aramaic proto-Matthew, which had been translated into the Matthew that we have. My suspicion, as I’ve said before, is that proto-Matthew was mapped onto Mark, possibly with some further admixture of sources -- notably the commonly hypothesised 'Q' -- to give us the document we know as Matthew.

We have, then, real evidence that in the early second century Mark was regarded as the author of Mark, with this apparently having been believed in the late first century when Presbyter John would have taught Papias; There are, of course, plenty who dismiss the Papias tradition, but I have never seen a case for doing so that didn’t entail methods that were at least a tad circular.



Pseudonymous Authorship
To associate the New Testament documents, other than a central core of Pauline letters, directly with their traditional authors is often seen as the height of naivety; scholarly orthodoxy points instead to a scenario where texts arose within communities as expressions of their faith, being merely linked with prominent early Christians as a kind of communal imprimatur, whether said documents were Gospel narratives like John or letters like 2 Timothy.

The first problem with this is that this orthodoxy simply isn’t supported by much solid evidence; it is, rather, little more than a nineteenth-century hypothesis derived primarily from the belief that the New Testament documents were so late in authorship that they could no longer be regarded as written by their traditional authors, which in turn posed the problem of why early Christians venerated books they knew weren’t written by the traditional authors. That’s not to say that this is in itself a bad hypothesis, merely that people tend to forget that this is merely a theory, and one singularly lacking in supportive evidence.

In fact, not merely is there a lack of evidence to support the theory, there are serious arguments against its plausibility.

Origen and Eusebius noted that there were question marks over the authorship of 2 and 3 John, James, and Jude, but give no indication that anybody had ever so disputed the traditional authorship of the Gospels or the Pauline letters, say; neither is there any evidence of any of the Gospels having alternative names, like, the Gospel of the Antiochenes or the Gospel of the Ephesians. Indeed, I struggle to think of any post-Homeric books in Classical antiquity that could be described as having arisen from communities rather than being written by individuals.

In Forgery and Counter-Forgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics, Bart Ehrman argues that pseudonymous authorship was by no means a respectable tradition in antiquity, and that forgery was regularly condemned as such by people who had the tools they needed to identify it as such; we might think of how the first-century Thrasyllus collected a Platonic canon, including as an appendix a collection of texts he believed to be spurious accretions falsely attributed to Plato in subsequent centuries, or how the aforementioned Muratorian Canon dismisses as forgeries intended to further Marcion's Gnostic version of Christianity the supposedly Pauline letters 'to the Laodiceans' and 'to the Alexandrians'. The ancients, it should be remembered, had brains ever bit as good as ours. If Ehrman is right – and he might well be –  it seems unlikely that early Christians would have given a special place to books they knew to be falsely attributed.

This in turn invites another question, though: if early Christians – and their opponents – could have identified forged Biblical texts as forgeries, and yet didn’t do so, might this have been simply because from the first they knew and trusted their provenance?



Anonymity
Much tends to be made of the fact that the Gospels are anonymous books; clearly then, it is regularly held, authorship was subsequently ascribed to them and was done so on questionable grounds. Given the conventions of ancient literature, I find this bizarre: the plays of Euripides and Sophocles are no less anonymous than the Gospels, Plato hardly identifies himself as the author of every Platonic dialogue, and Aristotle certainly doesn’t identify himself as the author of the works ascribed to him, yet we don’t routinely cast aspersions on these on the grounds of their authors’ anonymity. And if the author of Matthew, say, speaks of Matthew in the third person, what of it? Julius Caesar and Thucydides did much the same thing.

Scrolls tended to have tags attached to them, necessary labels in collections of more than a few scrolls. We know that early Christianity originally developed within a Jewish context, so it seems that at least the larger Christian communities must have had collections of Old Testament scrolls which they would have supplemented by Paul’s letters and other documents. These scrolls must have been labelled – doing otherwise would have been like having a library of spineless books. When a community acquired or wrote its first Gospel they could presumably have labelled it ‘Gospel’ but once they came into possession of a second Gospel, it would have been important to label the two Gospels differently, the obvious way of doing so being by reference to their authors.

There is no reason to assume, then, that the Gospels were ever anonymous in any meaningful sense.



Does this matter?
As a general rule, the earlier the source, the more historically valuable it is, and it’s clear that the early Christians believed the historical reality of the faith an issue of paramount importance. Paul, famously, in 1 Corinthians 15 stresses that if the Resurrection isn’t real, then Christianity is a waste of time, but does so only after reeling off a list of witnesses to that Resurrection, most of these being, he wrote, still alive; his point, surely, was that these could be consulted on the accuracy of what he preached. Luke 1:2 makes a point of saying that he and others had learned the story of Christ from ‘those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word’, and John 1:14 seems to imply that the original audience of John included people who had witnessed the risen Christ, as indeed does the comment at John 21:24 that ‘we’ – his community or closest companions within that community  –  ‘know that [John’s] testimony is true’, something that had previously been noted at John 19:35.

In other words, the early Christians clearly thought it mattered that the Gospels should be regarded as having an essentially historical character. And if it mattered for them, should it matter any less for us? 

In the first place, we should have a serious vested interest in truth in general, and the truth of the Gospels in particular. In practical terms too, many people I know who have abandoned their faith have done so because they had come to regard the Gospels as little more than fairy tales written down long after the events they purport to describe. It wasn’t just that they didn’t believe in miracles and exorcisms and so forth, but that they suspected that the Church didn’t do so either or at least didn’t do so consistently; a Gospel read metaphorically was for them a pointless Gospel. The general historicity of the Gospel accounts really matters, and if we play this down we continue to drive people away.

It is perhaps worth noting that the Second Vatican Council explicitly assigned the Gospels’ authorship to the apostles ‘themselves and apostolic men’, such that it seems the Council affirmed Matthew and John as the actual authors of the Gospels assigned to them, even if John essentially dictated his Gospel while Matthew’s contribution to his Gospel may have taken the form of a lost Aramaic proto-Matthew.

I’m not inclined to worry too much about the question of whether Galilean fishermen could ever have written documents as polished – or indeed as Greek – as John or 1 Peter, or indeed about whether they could write at all. John 18:15, for starters, states that ‘the beloved disciple’ was known to the high priest, which suggests that he was rather better connected, and thus perhaps rather better educated, than the average fisherman.

As for the average fisherman, he might in any case have at least occasionally had a level of education to match that of a carpenter or builder, at least one such person being described in the Gospels as talking in Aramaic, reading in Hebrew, and possibly even chatting in Greek, given Jesus’ reported conversation with the Syrophoenician woman of Mark 7:26. As for Matthew, well, given he appears to have been not just a tax collector –  indeed, a customs official –  but a wealthy man able to put on a banquet for a large crowd at a moment’s notice, according to Luke 5:27, I don’t think we should be too sceptical about the prospect of his having been literate.

In any case, after a couple of decades of living in Asia Minor or Rome, it’d hardly be that strange for the likes of Peter or John to have mastered Greek, and it may also have been that they relied on others to polish their writing –  1 Peter 5:12, for example, makes clear that the letter itself was written by one Silvanus, just as Romans 16:22 reveals that Paul’s masterwork was in fact penned by one Tertius – before signing off on the finished product.

(Ghostwriting and approaches analogous to modern speechwriting could go some way to explaining stylistic differences to letters attributed to the same author, of course; I'm not entirely convinced, for instance, that many people, reading Lumen Fidei and Evangelii Gaudium would automatically assume they'd both ostensibly come from the same man.)

In any case, the assumption that people must have lacked literary talent because they smelled of fish always bothers me; it smacks of the sort of snobbishness that tries to assign Shakespeare’s plays to the likes of the Earl of Oxford. Talent isn’t confined to the wealthy, after all, and given a chance, people can shine.

From a specifically Catholic stance, it is worth remembering too that the Council taught that God inspired the Bible’s human authors to consign ‘to writing everything and only those things which He wanted,’ such that ‘everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred authors must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit’. In interpreting Scripture, then, we are called upon to do two things, both being clearly mandated as necessary by the Council: we must read with an eye to the human authorship of texts, noting literary forms and customary styles and conventions, and we must read with an eye to the divine authorship of texts, noting the unity of Scripture, the tradition of the Church, and the harmony that exists within elements of the faith.  

To do otherwise is to read the Bible outside the Church.


In short, then...
Anonymity within texts was common in antiquity, but given how scrolls would typically be labelled for ease of identification, this didn’t mean texts were at any point anonymous in any practical sense. There is no evidence that anybody other than the four traditional authors were ever identified as the authors of the Gospels, and Patristic sources indicate that the Gospels had been identified as written by their traditional authors as early as the late first and certainly in the early second century.

Contrary to scholarly convention in New Testament studies, it was not common in antiquity for texts to be falsely attributed to someone and then venerated by people who knew they weren’t written by their purported authors; forgeries tended to be regarded as such, and spurious texts were treated with suspicion. The belief that New Testament books were honoured as Johannine, Matthean, or whatever, on the basis of having arisen from communities centred around the likes of John and Matthew, was never really more than a hypothesis intended to resolve problems raised by, among other things, the late date at which said books were believed to have been written. Of course, this lateness has itself not been proven, and is all too often treated as a premise, rather than an uncertain conclusion. These theories have calcified into scholarly orthodoxies, but we should always remember that they are just theories, and theories based on precious little evidence at that.

Does this matter? I believe it does, primarily because the authorship of the Gospels is a matter of truth, and truth should be something in which we're all invested. I don’t think it’s good enough to brush this off as though it doesn’t matter.


That’s not the only reason, though: from the first, Christians have believed the basic historicity of the Gospel narratives to be important, especially for apologetic and evangelical purposes; the earlier a text is, the more likely its sources are to have witnessed the events it describes, and the more ‘historical’ we should recognise it as being.  As such, if we really care about sharing the Good News, we should hope that the New Testament documents are early and linked with people who witnessed the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, so that we can share that fact with people. It’s hard for most people to accept spiritual truth unless they’re first convinced of historical truth. 

16 March 2014

The Gethsemane Condundrum, and Reading Scripture with Both Eyes

When Jerome Murphy O’Connor died last November, his Telegraph obituary ended as follows:

‘In his last book, The Keys to Jerusalem, published last year, he addressed several problems to which he felt there had been no satisfactory answers, including what really happened in the Garden of Gethsemane, where, according to all four Gospels, immediately after the Last Supper Jesus took a walk to pray. “How do we know the words of Jesus’s prayer?” he asked. “If the disciples were asleep and they had no time with Jesus after he was arrested and before he was put to death, how does anyone know what Jesus prayed? Where is the source for the content?”

His answer was: “They made it up!”

Father Jerry Murphy-O’Connor tended to dismiss criticism that such questioning might undermine belief, arguing that those whose faith is shaky would lose it anyway, whereas those looking for spiritual refreshment rather than crude proof would come away strengthened.’

This bothered me for a couple of reasons.

In the first place, I thought, if we place any trust in the Resurrection accounts, as one would hope a Dominican priest might, we should recognise the tradition of Jesus having spent time with the disciples after his resurrection; if he spent time with them, isn’t it more than likely that one of them would have asked how he’d felt in Gethsemane, in his last hours of freedom?

Secondly, I was uneasy at the cavalier attitude displayed to Jerome towards those whose faith is shaky. Weak faith isn’t a terrible thing, after all; it might not be anywhere near as good as great faith, but Jesus is pretty clear that ‘if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.’ (Matt. 17:20) A weak faith – a shaky, frail faith – can be the seed of something so much greater. Our job isn’t to trample the seeds of faith; it’s to nurture them to help become what God wants them to be.

All of which, I’m afraid, somewhat jaundiced my attitude to a couple of short articles by Jerome I read back in January. Even a cursory reading left me troubled by them, as they struck me as possibly a touch paranoid, but in order to get a fuller picture I thought I'd best take a look at exactly what he'd said about Gethsemane, and to think about it afresh. 

I revisited the article where I’d first heard of Jerome’s Gethsemane theory, and indeed dug out the article from The Keys to Jerusalem itself – the relevant part of the book can be read on Google, though the guts of the article are more easily available. The full version of the article is, to be fair, somewhat more nuanced that the newspaper summaries would suggest, but nonetheless, it is clear that Jerome’s favoured theory starts from the assumptions that the Apostles had slept through Jesus’ travails and could hardly have asked him what had happened at any point between his capture and crucifixion.

‘If Jesus was not the source, then the only possibility is that certain disciples projected onto Jesus the emotions that they imagined they would experience if they suddenly realized their death was imminent. As the followers of a crucified criminal, they knew that they were walking a dangerous path and must have reflected frequently on how they would react if threatened with death. ‘

Or, if you like, they made it up. 

Against this, in the book Jerome does acknowledge the existence of some counter-arguments, but makes it clear that he has little time for them. He notes how Raymond E. Brown described the view that the line that the Apostles were asleep and therefore couldn’t have observed what had happened as nothing but the objection of a ‘village atheist’; Brown himself was of the view that the Apostles had not been simultaneously, steadily, and soundly asleep, while others have ventured that the young man in the linen cloth of Mark 14:51 could have witnessed Jesus’ torments, and others still have noted that in the New Testament ‘sleep’ does not always mean ‘slumber’ but can simply mean a state of unreadiness.

Finally, Jerome wraps up the article by acknowledging that others – going back to Martin Luther – had speculated that ‘Jesus had talked about the Gethsemane experience in the post-resurrection meetings with his disciples.’ None of these counter-arguments are seriously addressed; they’re noted as an afterthought, and never truly engaged with, let alone refuted; it’s as though Jerome regarded these hypotheses as unworthy of his attention.

Gloomily pondering this, I returned to a couple of articles by Jerome I’d recently been given to read, entitled ‘History in the New Testament: The Contribution of Dei Verbum’ and ‘History in the New Testament: After Dei Verbum’.  It didn’t take long before the margins were fairly heavily annotated.

The first article starts reasonably enough, I think, with a straightforward story of how a thesis defence in the early days of Vatican II drew an audience that included twelve cardinals and about 400 bishops, all there in support of the scholarly integrity of the Jesuits of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, which had come under pressure from high-ranking curial cardinals who feared that a critical approach to Biblical research threatened the Gospels’ historical integrity. Jerome goes on to tell how the initial conservative schema for Dei Verbum had been rejected the day before the aforementioned thesis defence – the fathers thus had an unexpected free day – and rewritten several times before it was accepted almost three years later by 2344 to 6.

It didn’t take long, though, before Jerome’s article started to unravel. The fifth chapter of Dei Verbum, he says, is devoted to the New Testament and gives pride of place to the Gospels, ‘whose historicity the Church affirms without hesitation’. Jerome notes that the text on this embodies a qualification: the Gospels ‘faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men and women, actually did and taught for their eternal salvation’. For Jerome the final words are all-important, but I’m not sure; it seems very easy to interpret that sentence, out of context, as saying that we should regard things Jesus said and did for our eternal salvation as having been faithfully recorded, but need not regard anything else as having been faithfully recorded.

That may sound like I’m picky, but watch what happens next…

Jerome continues by saying that what chapter five says is ‘reinforced and clarified’ by chapter three, which should cause us to stop short; three comes before five, and it makes little sense to think of an early chapter as a clarification of later one, it being more natural and more logical to think of the later chapter as an extrapolation of the earlier one.

Noting that ‘truth’ has replaced ‘inerrancy’ in the document as the correlative of ‘inspiration’, Jerome cites section eleven of Dei Verbum, the first part of chapter three, as saying that the consequence of inspiration is that ‘we must acknowledge the Books of Scripture as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error the truth that God wished to be recorded in the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.’ Again, he says, the key thing is that what matters is ‘the sacred truth of salvation’.

All very well, but how do we discern what is recorded for the sake of salvation and what is merely incidental? It’s here that Jerome commits an enormous sin of omission, one that I think undermines both articles and which – if it reflected his approach to scripture in general – would in no small way undermines his claim to be regarded as an authentically Catholic scholar.

How is the sacred truth of salvation to be discerned? Jerome cites section twelve of Dei Verbum as answering this:

‘Since in Sacred Scripture God has spoken through human agents and in human fashion, the interpreter … should carefully search out what the sacred writers truly intended to express … To determine the intention of the sacred writers, one must attend to such things as “literary forms”. For truth is differently presented and expressed in various types of historical writings.’

Reading this, having already read Dei Verbum myself, left me uneasy; I knew the document said that, of course, but I was sure it said more than that. So I turned to it, and found myself frowning. For starters, I was bothered by the phrases Jerome had omitted, being ‘if they are to ascertain what God has wished to communicate to us’ and ‘that meaning which God had thought well to manifest through the medium of their words’; why had Jerome left these out? They seem to suggest, after all, that we should be thinking not simply about what the evangelists wanted to convey, but about what God was trying to convey.

More troubling, though, was the final paragraph of section twelve, to which Jerome appeared to pay no heed at all. Having outlined the importance of a genuine historico-critical method, Dei Verbum continued:

‘But since sacred scripture must be read an interpreted with its divine authorship in mind, no less attention must be devoted to the content and unity of the whole of scripture, taking into account the tradition of the entire church and the analogy of faith, if we are to derive their true meaning from the sacred texts.’

Dei Verbum goes on to say that ‘it is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, towards a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of sacred scripture,’ making clear then that exegetes shouldn’t just work, as per Jerome’s article, with an eye to the human authorship of individual Biblical texts, but should also keep in mind the divine authorship of the Bible as a whole. It’s a classic case of the Catholic ‘both/and’. There’s no trace in Jerome’s article of the principle that both rules should be followed; indeed, there’s no trace of the fact that Dei Verbum detailed more than one rule. 

At this point it’s worth remembering that chapter three of Dei Verbum, far from being there as a buttress and a clarification of chapter five, it is there to outline the principles under which the Old and New Testaments should be examined. The very first paragraph of chapter three twice mentions the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and concludes as follows:

‘To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and faculties so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.’

Now, call me old-fashioned, but isn’t the import of that final sentence that everything that’s in the text is there because God wants it to be there? It may be there in a human way, embodying human literary forms, but in terms of basic content, whatever’s there is there because God wants it to be, and there’s nothing superfluous.

There doesn’t seem to be much scope, if we follow these rules and this overriding principle, for the notion that when it came to Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane, the Apostles just ‘made it up’. Given how Jerome sums up Dei Verbum and its implications for New Testament scholarship, it rather looks as though he’s just cherry-picked from the Church’s rules.

Still, Jerome’s first article ends on the sensible point that Dei Verbum is adamant that simplistic approaches to the reading of the New Testament are unacceptable; his second article entails praise for popes who recognised this, with special praise being given to Benedict XVI for his use of the critical method in his Jesus of Nazareth books and to John Paul II for his rejection of what might be deemed ‘Catholic fundamentalism’.
Early in this second article there’s an odd minor paragraph which talks of ‘hints of resistance’ in Rome to serious Biblical research; Jerome says that ‘apparently’ the Pontifical Biblical Commission was asked to report on the question of the ordination of women, but when it’s ‘leaked’ conclusion was that ‘nothing in the New Testament was opposed to their ordination as priests’, the Vatican hushed the whole thing up.

That ‘apparently’ is a slippery word, as it gives the impression that Jerome is merely sharing an unsubstantiated rumour, but the comment on the conclusion is all the more problematic; if an investigation should have found that nothing in the New Testament was opposed to the ordination of women as priests, this might have something to do with the fact that there’s very little in the New Testament explicitly pointing to the ordination of anybody as priests!

We take ‘elder’ as a synonym for priest, with the English word ‘priest’ seemingly deriving from presbyteros, the Greek for ‘elder’, but things really aren’t that clear, the priesthood really being first discernible as a clear and distinct phenomenon in the writings of the disciples of those disciples we know as the Apostolic Fathers. In any case, seemingly this happened in 1976, with the commission voting 12-5 against the notion that scripture alone excluded women from the priesthood, and unanimously agreeing that this wasn’t an issue that could be decided either way on the basis of scripture alone.

Raising the spectre of what he sees as a rising threat to the kind of Biblical scholarship Vatican II envisaged, Jerome challenges the still-extant ‘groundswell of opposition to the critical treatment of the New Testament’ that has criticised the likes of Raymond E. Brown and done so with impunity, with hierarchies around the world allowing this to happen, because, he says, ‘they know perfectly well’ that if they responded to misguided criticism, ‘they would not be backed up by Rome’.

Given how he had testified to Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI promoting, defending, and using the historico-critical method, this seems an absurd charge, even, as I thought on first reading, a paranoid one.
It is peculiar that in criticising these critics, Jerome scorns them for not having ‘the tools, the training, or the mental agility’ to practice the kind of exegesis Dei Verbum had made ‘mandatory for Catholics’, and for lacking the ‘humility’ to stay silent in the face of experts such as himself.

One might wonder whether the Church actually made mandatory a kind of exegesis beyond most Catholics, or whether it had intended to promote a professional exegetical caste, or what Jerome means by describing as ‘mandatory’ the kind of exegesis outlined by Dei Verbum, when he himself seems only interested in one aspect of said exegesis. If it is true that these critics of historical criticism have gone ‘against the teaching of the Church’, then it looks to me as though they are but one side of the coin of casual and surely well-intentioned dissent, the other being represented by Jerome himself.

Of course, by saying that it could be said that I have fallen in among those ‘Catholics who impugn the integrity of critical scholars’, and perhaps this is true to some degree, though I hope not, but it seems to me that Dei Verbum requires a holistic reading of the Bible, wherein our eyes should be directed to both the human and the divine roots of the texts; if some scholars insist on reading the New Testament in one monocular fashion, it should hardly surprise them that they should draw the fury of an equally monocular mob.

It certainly seems perverse to liken their criticisms to clergy preaching abortion or gay marriage; it is one thing to criticise partially Catholic scholarship on partially Catholic grounds, but another thing entirely to use the pulpit as a platform to attack straightforward applications of Catholic morality. ‘Ignorant underground criticism of biblical scholars’ may well pose a danger to the health of the Church, but one might wonder whether scholarship that pays little heed to core principles of Catholic exegesis is significantly better.

14 March 2014

An Observation on Evangelii Gaudium

One of the greatest challenges facing Catholics in the modern world is to communicate with that world in a language it understands. When Jorge Bergoglio became Pope, then, the world's media provided Catholic pundits everywhere with an extraordinary teaching opportunity. Among the questions that came up time and time again were 'why do popes take papal names?' and 'why did Jorge Bergoglio taken the name "Francis"?'

Papal names, it was explained, are something like mission statements – they give a sign as to the direction or flavour the new pope hopes his papacy will have. In calling himself ‘Francis’, then, Jorge Bergoglio harked back to St Francis of Assisi and seemed to be saying that his would be a papacy of simplicity, renewal, and outreach; he wanted a Church that was ‘fit for mission’.

Evangelii Gaudium, then, should be regarded as a general programme for how that mission should be conducted, with simplicity, renewal, and outreach being central to the programme. For Francis, missionary outreach is ‘paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity’, and we are called on to go beyond ‘a pastoral ministry of mere conservation’ to ‘a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry’.

The first chapter of Evangelii Gaudium is devoted to what Francis terms ‘The Church’s Missionary Transformation’, and section three of this chapter, entitled ‘From the Heart of the Gospel’ could almost be subtitled ‘Context is King’.  

Francis begins by saying that in today’s world of globalised rolling media and social communications, what we say runs a great risk of being distorted and reduced to its secondary aspects; it is hard to read this without thinking of how his September 2013 interview for America and other Jesuit periodicals had been reported. 12,000 words long, it was reduced for many in the world’s media to a small number of soundbites, some of which, especially in a section America headed ‘The Church as Field Hospital’, are echoed word for word in this part of Evangelii Gaudium.

Perhaps the most famous of these soundbites, other than ‘I am no one to judge,’ is: ‘We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.’

It was hard, in September, to find a newspaper that didn’t feature this line alongside some comment to the effect that the Church was about to put aside or rethink its antiquated moral teaching. But was Francis really saying that priests shouldn’t talk about these things? Clearly not, given that the interview had hardly been published before Pope Francis addressed a gathering of Catholic doctors, saying, ‘Each child that is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who, even before he was born, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the Lord.’ Indeed, it seems Pope Francis has made at least ten public statements in defence of the unborn since becoming Pope, including in Evangelii Gaudium itself.

So what’s going on? The key, as Pope Francis explained in his September interview, is context; ‘when we speak about these issues,’ he said, ‘we have to do so in a context’.

When we speak about emotional or controversial issues, old and new media alike are prone to leap on them, tearing them from the context in which they should be expressed, and making it seem as though our message is primarily – even exclusively – about these issues. This makes it all the more important, then, for Christians to show how these issues, even though not themselves central to Christ’s message, nonetheless are clear and unavoidable applications of Christ’s message. We’re called upon to show how our teaching on what we might call ‘neuralgic’ issues – those issues that strike a nerve – comes straight from the heart of the Gospel, and how the truths we hold form a single coherent whole, rather than a disjointed and unstable multitude of doctrine.

We have to be realistic, says Pope Francis. We can’t assume that our audience – and here he does not merely mean the relatively captive audience in the pews, although he certainly does mean them, but rather all those to whom we are called to reach, including our workmates, our families, and our friends – understands the unity, the sense, and the love that lies at the heart of our faith.

Time is short, and so when engaging in missionary pastoral ministry we have to prioritise, focusing on the ‘most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary’ essentials of Christian teaching. If people can encounter the love of Christ, then they can be led to understand what that love means… which among other things entails seeing each of us, however vulnerable, as unique fellow human beings, bearing the Image of God.

Prioritising in this way shouldn’t be seen as an impossible task, let alone a betrayal of the Gospel; ours is a unified faith, but it is also a hierarchical one. Francis cites the Second Vatican Council’s decree on Ecumenism, which reminds theologians that when discussing doctrines with our separated brethren, ‘they should remember that in Catholic teaching there exists an order or “hierarchy” of truths, since they vary in their relationship to the foundation of the Christian faith.’

Francis also devotes a paragraph to St Thomas’s explanation of the hierarchy of virtues, noting that for Thomas mercy was the greatest of the virtues. ‘Mercy,’ it’s worth noting, was identified by veteran Vaticanista John Allen last August as likely to be the watchword of this papacy: it is a word Francis returns to time and again, his motto meaning ‘by having mercy, by choosing him’, saying in his first homily at St Ann’s that the Lord’s strongest message is one of mercy, and in his inflight press conference after World Youth Day calling the present day a ‘kairos ' – a divinely appointed moment – 'of mercy’.

It is important for draw out the pastoral consequences of the Church’s teaching, says Francis, and in this light ‘mercy’ must not be confused with leniency. In his September interview, for instance, he spoke of mercy as being at the heart of the Gospel, with confession being the sacrament of mercy and confessors being ‘ministers of mercy’, explaining the need for confessors to take responsibility for their penitents as people. Neither excessive rigour nor excessive laxity does this, he said, and as such both are lacking in true mercy.

‘The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, “This is not a sin” or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.’

The crucial point to understand, then, is that our faith is a unified whole, in which no truth can be denied, and in which all truths must be expressed in proportion to their proximity to the heart of the Gospel, that being the saving mercy and love of Christ. Context is, if you like, not just king, but King of Kings.

We should speak of law, but we should speak even more of grace; we should speak of the Church, but we should speak even more of Christ; we should indeed speak about the Pope, but we should speak much, much more of the word of God. Above all, the Gospel should encourage us to respond to God, seeing God in others and reaching out to seek the good of others.

If we forget this, then we risk presenting the moral teaching of the Church not as the natural application of the heart of the Gospel and God’s saving love, but as a disjointed multitude of pet doctrines, emphasised differently from priest to priest. If we do this, we undermine the Church’s teaching, and drive others either to reject it as something stale or else to follow suit and pick from it themselves as though from an ideological buffet. We have a duty, then, to prevent people from thinking the Church's moral teaching as no more structurally sound than a house of cards, and can do this if only we present the Church's teaching in its entirety, showing it to be a well-built house founded on solid rock.


GD, Cork, 28 January.

13 March 2014

Newman, Doctrine, and the Second Vatican Council

It could credibly be argued that the first seeds of the Second Vatican Council were sown on 2 February 1843, when the then-Anglican John Henry Newman preached a sermon in Oxford under the title of ‘The Theory of Developments in Religious Doctrine’. [1]

Taking as his text Luke 2:19, ‘Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart,’ Newman argued that a truly Christian faith is a Marian faith, not merely accepting what has been revealed, but reflecting upon it, using it, developing it, reasoning on it.[2] Describing as ‘wonderful’ the development and growth of the Christian mind, Newman said:

‘And this world of thought is the expansion of a few words, uttered, as if casually, by the fishermen of Galilee. … Reason has not only submitted, it has ministered to Faith; it has illustrated its documents; it has raised illiterate peasants into philosophers and divines; it has elicited a meaning from their words which their immediate hearers little suspected. … Its half sentences, its overflowings of language, admit of development; they have a life in them which shows itself in progress; a truth, which has the token of consistency; a reality, which is fruitful in resources; a depth, which extends into mystery: for they are representations of what is actual, and has a definite location and necessary bearings and a meaning in the great system of things, and a harmony in what it is, and a compatibility in what it involves.’[3]

Drawing on an earlier distinction between what he deemed ‘explicit’ and ‘implicit’ reason,[4] Newman argued that Revelation impresses certain supernatural facts or principles on the minds of those to whom truth is revealed, holding that those upon whose minds these supernatural realities had been impressed could be unaware of the truths which they possessed, such that over time they would draw unconsciously on realities they could not articulate, and ‘centuries might pass without the formal expression of a truth, which had been all along the secret life of millions of faithful souls’.[5]

Two years later, in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman developed this thesis at much greater length, addressing the apparently undisputable historical reality that Christian teaching had varied so much over the centuries that one might legitimately wonder whether there had been any true ‘continuity of doctrine’ since Apostolic times. [6]

Newman argued that a true continuity of doctrine could indeed be discerned, with any appearances to the contrary to be expected, given that Christianity is a living thing; butterflies do not obviously resemble the caterpillars from which they grow, after all, but the butterfly is, as it were, ‘written’ in the caterpillar and should be regarded as its authentic and flourishing mature form, just as the chicken is written in the egg, and the mustard bush in the proverbial mustard seed.[7] In a famous passage he wrote that while it is sometimes said that streams are clearest near where they rise, this is not quite true for the history of philosophy or belief, which:

‘… is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary.’[8]

Newman had long believed growth, as he remarks in his spiritual autobiography, ‘the only evidence of life’,[9] and as he regarded the Church as a living thing, so he regarded development of Christian tradition as inevitable. To be faithful, however, a development must retain ‘both the doctrine and the principle with which it started.’[10]As a living thing, however, it was prone to develop in an organic fashion:

‘From time to time it makes essays which fail and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and fall around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’[11]

This notion of organic development was perhaps Newman’s greatest contribution to Christian thought. Hitherto there had been a number of ways of addressing the question of doctrinal development, none of which Newman found satisfactory: some Protestants believed that Christianity had only developed by absorbing foreign elements,[12] which necessitated a return to a Bible-only religion and seemed to contradict the guarantees Christ had given his Church, while Anglicans tended to favour the principle of St Vincent of Lerins that Christianity is ‘what has been held always, everywhere, and by all’, which Newman felt unworkable and inclined to undercut all Christian groups without exception.[13]   Catholic theories on development tended to hold that all doctrines had always been explicitly present even if secretly so, but the Scholastic theory of logical explication based on deductions from earlier formulations did not fit easily with the known facts of history, and Bossuet’s principle of clarification which saw developments as later explanations of earlier formulations did not really explain how so much development had demonstrably taken place.[14]

Just as Newman’s contemporary Darwin was not the first to envisage some form of development of species, so Newman was not the first to envisage some form of development of doctrine; what was new, however, was his belief that doctrine developed organically, with the faithful reason of believers working over centuries under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to nurture and polish the original revelation so that it became a divine philosophy.[15] That Newman should have thought in this ‘evolutionary’ fashion is hardly surprising given how ‘progress’ was the central theme in mid-nineteenth century thought; the Industrial Revolution had dramatically changed technology, culture, and society, such that scholars and intellectuals of all sorts wrestled with how economies, life, personalities, and ideas develop. [16]

Newman may have regarded the process of development as organic, but he certainly did not believe it aimless or random; if he thought Vincent of Lerins’ approach unworkable, nonetheless it had value in how it defined authentic development in doctrine as ‘a real progress for the faith, and not an alteration: the characteristic of progress being that each element grows and yet remains itself, while the characteristic of alteration is that one thing is transformed into another.’[17] As Newman understood it, true developments retained both the original doctrine and the original principle.

Having early in his Anglican career regarded dogma as a mere necessary evil, taking the view that ideally Christianity would be – as it surely was in its earliest years – simple and free of such clutter,[18] by the time he came to write his Grammar of Assent he had come to believe that the supposition that there was ‘a contrariety and antagonism between a dogmatic creed and vital religion’ was simply false. He explained that dogma ascertains and makes clear ‘the truths on which the religious imagination has to rest’, as ‘knowledge must ever precede the exercise of the affections’; emotional and imaginative sentiment, then, depend on the intellect, and as such devotion depends upon dogma.[19]

If it might seem surprising that this could ever have proved congenial to him, given his earlier views, it is worth turning to G.K. Chesterton, the final chapter of whose Orthodoxy  seems to owe a clear debt to Newman’s Grammar[20]. In this, Chesterton observes that Christianity needs doctrine if it is to flourish and to be free:

‘Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. […] We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.’[21]

Given this, the teaching duty of the Church, for Newman, could hardly have been clearer. To a Catholic, wrote Newman to Richard Holt Hutton in 1871, the Church is, so to speak, ‘a standing Apostolic committee – to answer questions, which the Apostles are not here to answer, concerning what they received and preached.’ Not knowing more than the Apostles, he explained, there are questions the Church cannot answer, but it nonetheless was empowered to state the doctrine of the Apostles, ‘what is to be believed, and what is not such’. [22]

This imposed a responsibility on the Magisterium so fearful that, Newman believed, occasional excesses of zeal on the part of the Church’s doctrinal watchdogs were as understandable as they were unavoidable:

‘In this curious sceptical world, such sensitiveness is the only human means by which the treasure of faith can be kept inviolate. There is a woe in Scripture against the unfaithful shepherd. We do not blame the watch-dog because he sometimes flies at the wrong person. I conceive the force, the peremptoriness, the sternness, with which the Holy See comes down upon the vagrant or the robber, trespassing upon the enclosure of revealed truth, is the only sufficient antagonist to the power and subtlety of the world, to imperial comprehensiveness, monarchical selfishness, nationalism, the liberalism of philosophy, the encroachments and usurpation of science.’[23]

Occasional bouts of hypervigilance, then, however regrettable, were a price worth paying if the integrity of the Faith was to be protected. Not, of course, that it was for the Holy See alone to guard the deposit of faith. One of the other great themes in Newman’s writing, and one which flourished in the Second Vatican Council, was the role of the laity in preserving the truth that had been revealed; as early as 1835 Newman remarked of the laity to his friend Richard H. Froude that ‘the maintenance of the faith is their clear prerogative’.[24]

Clearly seeing the laity as an essentially conservative body, in 1859’s On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine Newman argued forcefully that it was appropriate for Rome to take into account what the laity believed on issues as yet undefined. It was wise to do this, he said, ‘because the body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and because their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church.’[25]

When Newman spoke of the laity being consulted, he stressed, he did not mean that the Magisterium should seek their opinion on how Rome should define things; rather, he said, the Holy See should consult the laity as a man would consult a barometer or a railway timetable, as a simple matter of fact: the question on any given doctrine was not ‘what does the laity believe the Church should teach?’ so much as ‘what does the laity see Church teaching as being?’

Newman was careful to speak, too, of the laity as a whole, referring to the consensus fidelium, the shared mind of the faithful throughout the world. He was all too aware of how portions of the laity could be out of step with the mind of the universal Church, noting, for instance, in his lectures on The Present Position of Catholics in England, that:

‘In all times the laity have been the measure of the Catholic spirit; they saved the Irish Church three centuries ago and they betrayed the Church in England. Our rulers were true, our people were cowards.’[26]

Insofar as the Church’s infallibility subsisted in the laity, then, it did so in a universal, not a sectional sense, and depended to an enormous – perhaps to an absolute – degree on how effectively and thoroughly they had been raised and formed in the truths of the Faith. Newman’s views on the laity as an authentic channel of tradition had been formed by his studies of the Arian heresy and how it was received by the fourth-century Church. Distinguishing between the part of the Church that teaches and the part of the Church that is taught, Newman maintained that the fourth-century Church leadership had hardly covered itself in glory, whereas the sort of well-instructed laity for which he hoped in his own day resisted the Arian innovations and maintained the true doctrine of the Church:

‘For I argue that, unless they had been catechised, as St Hilary says, in the orthodox faith from the time of their baptism, they never could have had that horror, which they show, of the heterodox Arian doctrine. Their voice, then, is the voice of tradition…’[27]



In short, then, Newman regarded doctrine as something that developed but did so organically, developments arising and being embraced gradually after centuries of reflection, these developments being signs of true growth, rather than the kind of changes that would change the essential character of things.

Theologians had the job of thinking and pondering on what the Church believed, but it was not for them to steer Peter's barque; rather, that task was primarily that of the Magisterium, with the Pope's primary role being to ensure the Church's unity in truth. If theologians should step outside the boundaries of the Church's belief, or threaten to lead others outside the established limits of Christian truth, then it was the duty of Rome to step in. Doing otherwise would be to neglect Rome's pastoral duties: good shepherds try to prevent sheep from straying, and strive to bring back lost sheep.

As for the laity, Newman saw theirs as an essentially conservative role, their job being in large part to watch the watchmen, to preserve the historical faith and practice of the Church -- because practice does not merely reflect faith, but can drive faith, with changes in practice leading to changes in faith -- even when clergy and theologians discard and deny what the Church had long believed and done. But the laity could not do this job, Newman was clear, unless they knew and embraced the Church's authentic historical belief; without a well-catechised laity, there could be no true sensus fidelium. Proper instruction in the realities of the Catholic faith, then, is vital if the laity is to be empowered, and health of the Church to be robust.


GD, Cork, January 2014.




[1] Ker, Ian, John Henry Newman, Oxford 1988, 266-269; Ker, Ian, Newman on Being a Christian, London 1990, 29-31; Newman, John Henry, Oxford University Sermons, London 1900, 312-351. Development of doctrine was arguably the central issue at the Second Vatican Council, with Newman’s work in this area being regarded as foundational, according to O’Malley, John W., What Happened at Vatican II, Cambridge MA 2008, 39.
[2] Newman, Oxford University Sermons, 313. Congar, Yves, The Meaning of Tradition, trans. A.N. Woodrow, San Francisco 2004, 112 likewise presents Mary as the archetype of the reflective Church, citing Hugo Rahner’s description of the Church as ‘the Mary of the history of the world’.
[3] Newman, Oxford University Sermons, 317-318.
[4] Newman, Oxford University Sermons, 251-277.
[5] Newman, Oxford University Sermons, 320-323.
[6] Newman, John Henry, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, London 1973, 69-72 notes his belief that the human and institutional continuity that was so clear in Christian history pointed strongly to the likelihood of real doctrinal continuity, but also admits the possibility that over time the ‘blade’ and ‘handle’ of Christianity might have been changed so often that doctrinal change could have happened without matters looking any different.
[7] Newman, Development, 117; on mustard seeds, see, of course, Matthew 13:31-32,  Mark 4:30-32, and Luke 13:18-19.
[8] Newman, Development, 100.
[9] Newman, John Henry, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, London 1962, 99.
[10] Newman, Development, 129.
[11] Newman, Development, 100.
[12] Bieber, Newman on Tradition, 131; Newman, Development, 88.
[13] Ker, John Henry Newman, 302; Newman, Development, 74-88.
[14] Bieber, Newman on Tradition, 131-132; Ker, Newman on Being a Christian, 31-32; Newman, Development, 88-90.
[15] Bieber, Günter, Newman on Tradition, translated by Kevin Smyth, London 1967, 130.
[16] Elsdon-Baker, Fern, The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins rewrote Darwin’s Legacy, London 2009, 72.
[17] As quoted in Congar, Meaning of Tradition, 119.
[18] Ker, Newman on Being a Christian, 22; Newman, John Henry, The Arians of the Fourth Century, London 1890, 36-37.
[19] Newman, John Henry, The Grammar of Assent, ed. I.T. Ker, Oxford 1985, 82-83. Ker, Newman on Being a Christian, 25-26.
[20] Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy in G.K. Chesterton Collected Works Volume I, San Francisco 1986, 348-349 reads as a personal take on Newman’s arguments for belief in Christianity based on natural inference and the illative sense. See also Oddie, William, Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC 1874-1908, Oxford 2008, 362-363 on Chesterton as a disciple of Newman in this respect.
[21] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 350.
[22] Dessain, Charles Stephen and Thomas Gornall, eds, The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman – Volume XXV: The Vatican Council January 1870 to December 1871, Oxford 1973, 418.
[23] Newman, John Henry, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, London 1961, 61.
[24] Bieber, Newman on Tradition, 39.
[25] Newman, John Henry, On Consulting the Faithful, 63. On the witnesses to Christian tradition, see Congar, Meaning of Tradition, 129-155, especially 140: ‘Living tradition, faithfully lived by Christians, is not creative, but is, in a sense, a source of Revelation – precisely because it contains and makes explicit things that it has always held and practiced concretely, but for which, in the beginning, there existed no written or verbal formulation.’
[26] Newman, John Henry, Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England, London 1896, 390-391; Newman’s comments on the cowardice of the English laity must be seen not as an absolute criticism, but as a comparative one, in contrast to the faith of their Irish brethren. His observation on the courage of their ecclesiastical leaders seems broadly fair; Eamon Duffy, Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor, New Haven 2009, #, notes that 10 of the 23 bishops Mary inherited from Edward VI returned to unity with the Catholic Church, with all bar one of the bishops she bequeathed Elizabeth rejecting the Elizabethan settlement, and observes that more than two thirds of Edward’s clergy returned to the Catholic Church under Mary, many of them retaining this allegiance after her death, noting that, for instance, it was possible in 1561 to walk through sixteen parishes between the Surrey border and the Sussex coast, in each of which the incumbent had either died of influenza or been deprived of office for refusing to conform to the Elizabethan settlement.
[27] Newman, Consulting the Faithful, 76; on Newman’s desire for an ‘intelligent, well-instructed laity’, see, famously, Newman, Present Position, 390.