THE CENTRAL PREMISE of Carsten Thiede's and Matthew D'Ancona's Eyewitness to Jesus—that three small papyri fragments from the twenty-sixth chapter of Matthew's Gospel at Magdalen College in England can be redated to the period A.D. 66- 70—has caused quite a stir.
According to the authors, the implications of this redating are enormous. First, it signifies that Matthew's Gospel was composed earlier than previously thought. The contemporary scholarly consensus usually dates Matthew's Gospel between A.D. 80-95, or up to a generation after the destruction of Jerusalem and the composition of the first Gospel by St. Mark. Thiede and D'Ancona argue that this earlier dating makes the author of Matthew's Gospel an eyewitness account of Jesus' life and definitively refutes the contention that the New Testament narratives are inventions. Finally, the earlier dating reinforces for believing Christians the historical reality underlying the events described, even if the Gospels may not be biographies of Jesus in the modern sense of the term.
The book's intended audience is the general public and to this end Eyewitness to Jesus is highly readable. It seems to be the biblical equivalent of Watson and Crick's best-seller The Double Helix, which recounts in an almost novelistic style the scientists' race to discover DNA's double-helix structure that earned them the Nobel Prize. But there is an inherent weakness to combining scholarly discoveries with journalistic revelation. Normally, scholarly findings are first published in peer-reviewed journals after a slow, painstaking process of research, not only to guard against error, but to ensure correct identification and interpretation. Journalism, on the other hand, thrives on immediate reaction— the antithesis of scholarly research. Although journalism strives for accuracy by using as many sources as possible, it still rewards, first and foremost, the scoop.
This dilemma (scholarly vs. journalistic) is evident in Eyewitness to Jesus. Chapter three, “Investigating the Magdalen Papyrus,” and chapter five, “Redating the Magdalen Papyrus,” give detailed accounts of how papyrologists analyze ancient manuscripts to arrive at their interpretations and conclusions. However, the assertion that “[t]he new claim deserved a much broader audience than the comparatively small guild of papyrologists to whom Thiede's learned article was addressed” serves journalism's, not scholarship's, primary interest. Ideally, scholars should be shy about going public with the results of their research for fear of misinterpretation or misrepresentation of their findings.
Ultimately, Eyewitness to Jesus aims to reconnect the Jesus of history with the Jesus of faith. Contemporary culture and certain scholarly methods have concluded that the traditions, teachings, sayings, and even miracles attributed to Jesus are myths, mere inventions of second-century Christians. The book hopes to provide provisional proof that part of the New Testament text, as found on the Magdalen Papyrus, could have been written by an eyewitness to Jesus, thus affirming the divine origin of our Christian faith. That is quite a service indeed. But one wonders what all the hype is about; the Catholic Church has always held this as the truth.
Father Pius Murray, C.S.S., is Professor of Old Testament and Director of Library Services at Pope John XXIII Seminary in Weston, Mass.