Inspiration vs. Inerrancy – An Addendum

In our two most recent blogs, we have argued for the view that the Bible should be viewed for what it says it is: inspired, not inerrant.

This blog takes a different turn, almost whimsical. But with clear warning signs for church orthodoxy.

We consider four seemingly disconnected observations about Matthew’s gospel and the ensuing aftermath. Taken together, the observations lead to an alternative hypothesis as to how the synoptic gospels came into being – and what that means.

All circumstantial evidence – as yet no smoking gun. But follow the trail with us – as we reveal the pieces of this patchwork quilt. Four themes:

1) The Gospel writer Matthew’s insistence on reinterpreting and distorting Old Testament prophecy to justify New Testament outcomes.

As we have noted in a prior blog, Matthew’s distorting effect is most blatantly evident in Matthew’s quotation of a Greek (Septuagint) translation of Isaiah prophesying that: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive.” The Hebrew Scripture actually says that a “young woman” (who may or may not be a virgin) shall conceive.

In effect, the Matthew available to us today has twisted what the Old Testament prophet said to support the claim that Jesus’ mother was a virgin. This apparent error in biblical translation was pointed out as early as the second century AD by the Christian theologian Justin Martyr.

If the author of Matthew’s gospel was really a Jewish tax collector hand-picked by Jesus, why would he have chosen to use the Greek term parthenos (meaning virgin) rather than the original Hebrew of almah (meaning young maiden – virginal or otherwise)?

The storyline of Matthew – of Hebrew prophecy fulfilled – is interwoven throughout this gospel as we have it today. However, in this gospel Old Testament prophecies that clearly were made for different purposes when written are force fit by the author of Matthew’s gospel onto the life and purpose of Jesus the Messiah. Three examples:

Michelangelo portrays St. Matthew as breaking free to write what church patriarchs describe as the first gospel written -- known down through the ages as "the greatest story ever told."  Free to portray Jesus the Christ "as is?" Or with liberty to also spin his gospel as "prophecy fulfilled?"

Michelangelo portrays St. Matthew as breaking free to write what church patriarchs describe as the first gospel written — known down through the ages as “the greatest story ever told.”
Free to portray Jesus the Christ “as is?” Or with liberty to also spin his gospel as “prophecy fulfilled?”

  • Matthew refers to statements in Samuel and Micah that a ruler of Judah will emerge from Bethlehem. The original citation in Samuel is that of a forerunner to the kingship of David, not Jesus.
  • In describing Herod’s massacre of the young males of Bethlehem, Matthew’s gospel recalls Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” However, Ramah is north of Jerusalem; Bethlehem is south. Jeremiah is writing of the exile of the Northern tribes of Israel to Babylon. Ramah was the point of deportation, with those too frail to make the trip executed in Ramah.
  • In apparent remorse for betraying Jesus, Judas returns the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests. The priests use the money to buy a potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. This is reported as the fulfillment of a prophecy made by Jeremiah: “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.” Matthew’s gospel is mistaken; there is no such verse in Jeremiah. Rather, his quote appears to be a very loose paraphrase of a verse in Zechariah.

Enough of Matthean misinterpretation for now! Let’s move on to the second scrap in our patchwork quilt.

2) The insistence of early 2nd century church patriarch Papias that Matthew was the first gospel to be written.

 The traditional view has been that the gospels were written in the order presented in the New Testament: Matthew, then Mark, Luke and John. This view has been largely supplanted by modern scholars (both liberals and conservatives) who contend that Mark was written first, then Matthew and Luke followed using Mark together with a non-extant “Q” set of Jesus sayings for their gospels.

But go back to those recorded voices closest to the source. Papias is quoted as saying that: “Matthew organized the sayings in the Hebrew language, but everyone has translated them as best he could.” The eminent third century theologian Origen also states that Matthew was written in Aramaic for a Jewish audience.

The mystery deepens: If Matthew knew and even wrote in Hebrew (or Aramaic), how could he have mistaken virgin for maiden? He should have defaulted to the Hebrew almah. Did this mistake occur by sheer accident, as a purposeful sleight of hand by Matthew the tax man, or as the intentional work of a post-Matthean redactor?

But before answering, let’s move on – to observation #3.

3) Clear tampering with the letters of Ignatius to support a proto-Trinitarian theology and submission to the rule of Church authority.

A contemporary of Papias was the late 1st century bishop Ignatius of Antioch. On his way to martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius writes letters to a number of churches with which he was familiar – ostensibly to encourage them in the face of persecution.

What is interesting about Ignatius is that there are varied extant versions of his letters to churches in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna. And what are the chief differences between the varied versions about? Two items: a) the divinity of Christ, and b) need for submission to Church hierarchy. All versions of the letters provide evidence of this bent by Ignatius. It’s just that some of the (later?) copyists appear to have amped up the rhetoric – conveniently in support of what would subsequently become official Catholic doctrine.

4) The 20th century suggestion by the pastor of Jerusalem’s Narkis Street Baptist Church that the correct dependency of the gospels begins with an early proto-narrative document (no longer extant) followed by Luke, then Mark, then Matthew.

In 1971, pastor Robert Lisle Lindsey published a pamphlet titled A New Approach to the Synoptic Gospels making a claim previously not conceived by others. Among nearly a dozen observations made in support of this thesis he offers two points of most relevance for this discussion:

  • The observation that Mathew closely matches the pericope (or story) order provided by Mark, but that Matthew also uses the same written source material known to Luke in making minor corrections to Mark’s highly tampered text, especially with direct copying of non-Markan parallels found in Luke.
  • The “remarkable fact” that almost the entire text of Luke’s gospel can be translated word-for-word back to the idiomatic Hebrew (or Aramaic). Mark’s terminology (much of which is used by Matthew) is not easily matched with the Hebrew at all. Surprisingly, Matthew deviates more from the Aramaic than Luke – with the most notable exceptions being those non-Markan parallels that closely match to Luke.

What to make of these four seemingly random observations?

Mr. Lindsey (now deceased) got close – but not quite all the way. We suggest a new hypothesis as to how the early synoptic gospels may have came into being, in something of the following order:

  • Begin with a proto-Matthew (perhaps authored by the real Matthew) written in Hebrew or Aramaic as stated by early church patriarchs – and largely devoid of many of the prophetic fulfillments unique to the Matthean gospel that we have today.
  • Move to the fast-paced, largely parable free account by Mark – the guy who enjoyed changing words just for the heck of it (or to do his own thing).
  • Now proceed to Luke written as a combination document but highly reliant on the Hebrew text of the Aramaic proto-Matthew but also on the story order of the paraphrasing Mark. Luke did his due diligence, looking to multiple sources as he wrote in the introduction of his gospel account to a certain Theophilus: “I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first (meaning multiple accounts), to write an orderly account for you … so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”
  • End with the subsequent copyist revisions to Matthew, creating the current text which satisfies the integration of Luke and Mark while also incorporating repeated statements to reinforce the concept of Jesus as fulfillment of prophecy – much as the revisons to the letters of Ignatius served to reinforce emerging church orthodoxy. When did this happen? Well, we don’t have a relatively complete text of the New Testament (still extant today) until the early 4th century – about the time that Emperor Constantine converted and then made Christianity the new state religion.

How are all these twists and turns of significance to Christians of the 21st century? For starters, if this hypothesis is anywhere close to the mark, it clearly would serve to further debunk the claim to biblical inerrancy. Rather than treat the gospels as, well, gospel, we are instead faced with a living, ever changing narrative of Jesus as Savior and expositor of the kingdom of God.

Inspiring? Yes, but only as we interpret scripture in the light of historic authenticity coupled with the ever wily breath of the Spirit – all played out uniquely in the lives and communities inhabited by each follower of the kingdom around and before us.

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