Questions after watching Frontline special

Hey guys,

A few days ago (don’t remember exactly what date) I watched a Frontline special called something like “From Jesus to Christ” on PBS.

Now, in this special, the experts that were doing the talking had a way of explaining every single thing in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in terms of the time of those books’ wrighting, the political environment of those times, and the target audience. As an example, they go on to show that Jesus is portrayed differently in the Gospels depending if they were written before of after the first Jewish revolt. (Sorry I don’t know the dates of the top of my head).

To me, most of the things they said sounded reasonable and seemed possible. What bothers me is that they seem to be able to explain it all without the need for God.

Has anyone by any chance seen this program? I would have posted right after I saw it but didn’t get a chance. What I wan’t to know is should I just ignore what they offer as explanations to the contents of the Gospels or should I entertain the thought that the nature of the times that they were written in, the primary audience they were written for, and the people they were written by, had a major influence on the books’ contents?

Does the Church have any official stance on secular influences and the Gospels?

Any thoughts are greatly appreciated :slight_smile:

Hi Flack, the revolt was in 70 AD, about 40 years after the ressurrection.

The historical crictical method is eactly what they are speaking about. For example Hosea 11 is not a prophecy, but Matthew 2:15 applies this text as proof that Jesus is the messiah. By todays standards that does not hold water. But, by the method of reading the bible in Jesus day, it works. So, yes, we are to consider the history, language and culture that the bible was written in to understand it. Another example is eye is the window to the soul or something like that, it is an idiom that speaks about a person being generious or stingy with his money. But, it is often misunderstood by modern man in a very literal fashon.

The word you want to look for in catholic sources is hermeneutics.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church mentions that when writing his Gospel each writer “synthesized or explained [the Gospel] with an eye to the situation of the churches”:
126. We can distinguish three stages in the formation of the Gospels:
1. The life and teaching of Jesus. The Church holds firmly that the four Gospels, "whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation, until the day when he was taken up."
2. The oral tradition. "For, after the ascension of the Lord, the apostles handed on to their hearers what he had said and done, but with that fuller understanding which they, instructed by the glorious events of Christ and enlightened by the Spirit of truth, now enjoyed."
3. The written Gospels. “The sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or already in written form; others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches, the while sustaining the form of preaching, but always in such a fashion that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus.”

The Church teaches that it is worthwhile to use modern scholarship to understand the human author’s meaning, and also that the Bible is the inspired and true word of God. Here are a couple quotes from one of the Vatican II documents that may help. This is from the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum:
…since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.
Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1). Indeed, after the Ascension of the Lord the Apostles handed on to their hearers what He had said and done. This they did with that clearer understanding which they enjoyed after they had been instructed by the glorious events of Christ’s life and taught by the light of the Spirit of truth. The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus. For their intention in writing was that either from their own memory and recollections, or from the witness of those who “themselves from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word” we might know “the truth” concerning those matters about which we have been instructed (see Luke 1:2-4).
Those are a couple passages that seem to bear on your question, but I really recommend reading the whole thing. It’s online at


The biblical aproach you are refering to is the modern method of interpretation generally referred to as “historical criticism.” It arose in 19th century Protestantism and began to be embraced by many Catholic scholars in the mid-twentieth century. The premise of this aproach is to look at the Bible as any other historical document and to analyze it from several angles: historical, literary, linguistic, cultural, and so on.

This is fine, so far as it goes, but the discipline soon transmogrified into what is commonly called " a hermeneutic of suspicion," which in practical terms means that any supernatural aspect of the Scriptures (miracles, some forms of prophesy, etc) is automatically assumed to be later additions to simple, easy to explain stories. This is where the aproach, IMHO, goes terribly wrong, as these scholars present this analysis as established fact (which it is not) and would thus leave us, in many cases, with a Bible stripped of the supernatural, or a befuddled, very human Jesus who would be shocked to learn that people consider him divine or that he meant to start a Church, etc. The infamous “Jesus Seminar” folks have refined this error to an art.

This aproach has managed to suck the life out of Bible reading for many people who reason if the “scholars” say it, it must be true. You have people in this very forum who slavishly follow this type of hermeneutic, so don’t be surprised if you get some contrary opinions. What the Church itself teaches on this subject is made abundantly clear in the Vatican II document on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum:

  1. Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.(1) In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him (2) they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, (3) they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text).

So take take any wooden nickles, even if you hear them in this forum. For more info, see these articles,

Scott Hahn On The Politicized Bible

What Is Biblical Criticism—and Should We Trust It?

or visit my website, linked below.

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