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Bible Gives Answers, Raises Questions
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Q U I C K S C A N

Can You Identify These Three New Testament People?
'Martyrs by Will, Love and Blood'?
Honoring Mary at Mass
More on Armenian Catholics


Q: I have enjoyed your magazine’s informative articles on Sacred Scripture, including the 2008 column “The Bible’s Supporting Cast.” I saved the one on Joseph of Arimathea.

I have three short questions: Did the Apostle Matthew write the Gospel of Matthew? Is the Apostle John also the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John? Did John the Apostle write the Fourth Gospel and the Book of Revelation?

A: Even though your questions are short, adequate responses will require some detail. My short answer is, “Over the centuries, most Christians have assumed your three questions have the same answer: yes.” A more complete response, however, is: “The names of authors were not affixed to the Gospels until the second century, by which time the Church had already accepted these Gospels as inspired by God. Likewise, we cannot be certain who the Beloved Disciple in John’s Gospel is. A biblical book can be inspired even if its exact author is unknown.”

We do not have the original manuscripts for any of the books of the Bible. According to D.W. Johnson, S.J., in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (NJBC), the oldest New Testament fragment (Rylands Papyrus 457) dates to approximately 135. The Codex Sinaiticus, probably the oldest copy of the entire New Testament, dates to the middle of the fourth century (68:179,157).

Benedict T. Viviano, O.P., points out that in the same century Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History quotes Papias of Hierapolis (c. 125), who identifies the Gospel writers as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, reflecting their order in the New Testament. Papias says that Matthew compiled the sayings of Jesus in Aramaic and translated them into Greek as well as he could (NJBC, 42:2).

The identity of the Beloved Disciple, mentioned only in the Gospel of John (13:23; 19:26; 20:2f; 21:7,20-24), has intrigued Christians for centuries. Although John L. McKenzie’s Dictionary of the Bible (1965) states that there is “no difficulty in identifying [John] with the beloved disciple,” Pheme Perkins notes in 1990 that the author of Chapter 21 of the Gospel of John “clearly does not identify the Beloved Disciple, who is the source of the Johannine tradition, with John the son of Zebedee [John the apostle]” (NJBC, 61:12). Raymond Brown, S.S., and many other biblical scholars had earlier reached the same conclusion.

Pheme Perkins also says that the Apostle John did not write the Gospel that bears his name.

Regarding the Book of Revelation, Adela Yabro Collins writes, “It seems best to conclude that the author was an early Christian prophet by the name of John, otherwise unknown” (NJBC, 63:7). Many modern biblical scholars agree with Perkins and Collins on this.

Such scholarly work, however, does not undermine the value of the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of John or the Book of Revelation. These three works are part of the New Testament not because all members of the Church were certain of their authorship but because the Church at large recognized its faith in these writings.

The same cannot be said for the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter or other accounts that allegedly come from an apostle or close associate of Jesus. These writings were not accepted into the canon (list) of New Testament books.

In this, Christianity has followed the lead of Judaism in recognizing which books belong in the Hebrew Bible. The content of the writing was much more important than its presumed author.

The New Testament is the Church’s book before it belongs to any individual Christian. When that is acknowledged, there can be legitimate development in understanding biblical texts. For example, although neither Jesus nor St. Paul explicitly condemned slavery as incompatible with the Good News, after centuries of prayer and reflection most Christians by the mid-19th century had concluded that no one can own another person in the same sense that an individual can own a house, food or clothing.

We need to pray with the Bible, allowing it to challenge the way we view God, ourselves and other people. We also need to study the Bible with the best tools that we can find. The New American Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, the New Jerome Biblical Commentary and the Collegeville Bible Commentary contain excellent background material for understanding biblical texts. Catholic bookstores have other helpful resources.

The Bible is the Word of God before it is a source of theological, historical, archaeological or linguistic puzzles.

During his homily for the opening Mass of the World Synod of Bishops (October 5-26, 2008) on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” Pope Benedict XVI reflected on that Sunday’s Gospel, the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-43).

He asked whether people today in proclaiming “themselves the absolute proprietors of themselves and the sole masters of creation, can they truly build a society where freedom, justice and peace prevail? Does it not happen instead—as the daily news amply illustrates—that arbitrary power, selfish interests, injustice and exploitation and violence in all its forms are extended?”

After citing other biblical texts on Christ as the vine, the pope said: “The comforting message that we gather from these biblical texts is the certainty that evil and death do not have the last word but that it is Christ who wins in the end. Always!”

Q: A prayer booklet distributed in my parish last year for the Advent and Christmas season contained these words: “The Church placed the feasts of St. Stephen, the Holy Innocents and St. John all within the octave of Christmas to acknowledge the ‘first martyrs’: Stephen (martyr by will, love and blood), St. John (martyr by will and love) and the Holy Innocents (martyrs by blood).”

I am puzzled by the expressions in parentheses. Can you shed any light on them?

A: I wonder if the categories of “will, love and blood” were inspired by 1 John 5:6-8, which reads: “This is the one who came through water and blood, Jesus Christ, not by water alone, but by water and blood. The Spirit is the one that testifies, and the Spirit is truth. So there are three that testify, the Spirit, the water and the blood, and the three are of one accord.”

I would take the passage you cited to mean: St. Stephen was an actual adult martyr, St. John was a virtual adult martyr and the Holy Innocents were infant martyrs.

St. Stephen the deacon is the first follower of Jesus whose martyrdom is recorded in Acts of the Apostles 7:54-60. His service as a deacon and his defense before the Sanhedrin are described in Acts 6:1—7:53.

According to one tradition, after the Roman authorities unsuccessfully attempted to boil John the Apostle in oil, they exiled him to the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. Ephesus in nearby western Turkey contains the ruins of a church said to be the burial place of the only apostle not to die as a martyr.

The Catholic Church has long spoken of Baptism by water, by desire (not formally baptized) or by blood (martyred). The December 2007 “Ask a Franciscan” column affirmed that the Holy Innocents were truly martyrs.

Q: I have been a St. Anthony Messenger subscriber for many years and would like to ask: During Sunday or weekday Mass, why do we not honor the Blessed Mother by saying a Hail Mary? She has always prayed for our needs!

A: Mary the mother of Jesus is mentioned in the Roman Canon and in every eucharistic prayer used at Mass. I count 14 Marian feasts on the Church’s worldwide liturgical calendar. In the United States, we also celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12.

Some people privately recite the Hail Mary before Mass, after Holy Communion or after Mass. Mary is the first and most perfect disciple, yet the Church has not chosen to make the Hail Mary a prayer at Mass.

The November “Ask” column cited Michael La Civita’s September 2006 article about the Armenian Apostolic Church in ONE magazine (www.cnewa.org). That Church is one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Michael’s article on the Armenian Catholic Church appears in ONE’s September 2008 issue. The text is available at the same Web site.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.


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