A reader writes:
I am debating with a semi-atheist acquaintance. Among his many arguments, one was that Jesus did not establish a church, his followers did. I came back with Matthew 16, to which he responds, “Jesus didn’t say that. Matthew did.” Any ideas on how to respond to such certain uncertainty?
I think “Prove it” is a good argument. If Matthew is the only apostle who thinks Jesus commanded the founding of a Church, it is rather hard to explain why all Jesus’ apostles, everywhere they went, founded churches. “Church” = “ecclesia”, which is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew word meaning “assembly of the people”. It’s a thoroughly Jewish concept because no ancient Israelite thought of worship as an individualist Protestant does. Nor was sacrifice done as an individual. And the early Church, make no mistake, celebrated the sacrifice of the Mass in the Eucharist—because Jesus commanded them to do so at the Last Supper. To have a Eucharist at all (which Jesus certainly commanded) means to have a Church. You can’t have one without the other.
The attempt to tease a “real Jesus” out of the gospels and separate him from the actual Jesus who is portrayed by the evangelists is a fool’s errand. It tells us only what the reader likes to exaggerate and what he likes to ignore in the testimony of the evangelists. It tells us nothing about the “real Jesus” because the real Jesus is the one the evangelists are describing for us. Indeed, the reason the documents exist at all is because they were written to illuminate and explain the meaning of the actions of the Church in celebrating the Eucharist and other sacraments. The New Testament documents were not written, then a Church founded, then the Mass concocted in order to comply with the mysterious command of Jesus, “Take, eat. Do this in memory of me.” Rather, the events described in the gospels occurred, then the Church was founded on the command of Jesus and the events of the Passion and Pentecost, then the liturgy of the Eucharist began to be celebrated (which included both the study of the Old Testament scriptures and the testimony of the apostles to “Jesus and the resurrection”, and finally the New Testament documents started to be written. The first documents were not gospels, but letters, typically written to put out pastoral fires in light of the new revelation of Christ. So, for instance, the earliest documents we have are 1 and 2 Thessalonians, which deal with sundry problems in the church at Thessalonica, generally pertaining to enthusiasm for the Second Coming. Romans is written in a more treatise fashion, but is still rooted in a pastoral problem: the relationship of Jewish and Gentile Christians. Galatians also concerns this issue. Hebrews also deals with the question of how Jewish Christians are to regard the Old Covenant and remain faithful to the New Covenant. The gospels, in fact, come nearly last in the composition of the New Testament documents and are written, again, for a very practical pastoral reason: because the generation of the apostles is dying off and the story needs to be gotten down in print. By the time they are written, the Church has been a living reality for roughly forty or fifty years. So the notion that Matthew suddenly cooked the idea up is ahistorical rubbish. Matthew is explaining where the Church came from, not creating the idea of the Church. The documents, indeed, make clear that they exist to reinforce a tradition the original readers already know, not to inform them of something they don’t know. That’s why, for instance, Luke starts his gospel:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed. (Luke 1:1-4)
Luke (like all the gospel writers) assumes that his audience has been informed of the gospel already. He writes, as all the evangelists do, to reinforce and document for his readers what they already know, not to tell them things they don’t know. This is not strange in antiquity, because the preference for many ancients was “the living word”: that is, the testimony of living witness rather than the testimony of books, because living witnesses can be questioned while books cannot. Our culture tends to prefer written documentation, and so assumes that the Church got busy writing gospels instantly and then built churches on top of them based on whatever the text said. So my readers friend talks as though Matthew wrote “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” and then somebody came along, read the book, and decided to get a bunch of people together and start a Church based on this verse. But the events the gospels record and then the Church came first. The book only came along decades later to make sure that the events the “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” have been talking about for decades don’t get bollixed up. What is striking is how much in common the four gospels have. With any other ancient document, historians would drool over having four witnesses giving such a diverse yet unified testimony to the events they report. But with the gospels, the determined skeptic treats even the tiniest divergence as though the whole thing is unreliable. It’s sort of like a modern claiming that because there are divergent testimonies to the number of shots fired in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963, we can safely say that JFK never existed. With the New Testament, the massive and common sense fact is that the documents say what they say and we should deal with them on that basis rather than waste time trying to exaggerate this verse and suppress that one in order to create yet another Latest Real Jesus who only reflects our own face back to us.