Saturday, July 05, 2014

Loftus Denies the Existence of the Iliad

The Proclamation of the Epistle at High Mass
(Corpus Christi, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament)

Of all the bizarre claims I've read in Mgr Basil Loftus' column, this must win some kind of prize.

An even greater difficulty arose for the early missioners to the Greeks from the total aversion of Greek culture to written records, and their preference for oral myths. "The concept of a text that contained spiritual 'truths' was accepted in Judaism and in traditional religions, but it was new to the Greco-Roman world ... The idea that stories about God and his actions (muthoi) could be frozen in written form and interpreted to make statements of 'truth' (logoi) was alien to the Greeks and there was to be some resistance to it in early Christianity."

The internal quotation is from Charles Freeman The Closing of the Western Mind, a rant about how Christianity ruined everything. Loftus must be congratulating himself on finding a book as muddled as he is; never mind that Freeman is ferociously anti-Christian. Doesn't Loftus know the Golden Rule?

Never Take Seriously People who Feel they Must Always Put 'Truth' in Inverted Commas.

The Iliad had been in written form for many centuries by the time St Paul arrived in Greece. In Plato's time (ie more than four centuries earlier) it had already long been regarded as a more or less inspired religious text (read his dialogue Ion if you need convincing). Its significance was in fact far greater than we would expect of a sacred text: it was held to contain wisdom on a whole range of social, psychological, and even practical matters. Greek schoolboys had to learn lists of archaic words in order to understand it. And then, of course, there was Hesiod's Works and Days, a text setting out the auspicious and inauspicious times to do all kinds of activities, as well as myth; the Odyssey, containing a whole lot more stories of gods and men; more recent literary treatments of myth such as by Apollonius (and, for the Romans, Virgil's Aeneid and Ovid's Metamorphoses, and other works); and the hugely influential body of Greek drama: the ones most familiar to us today being venerable classics by the time of Christ. And then there was philosophy, the boundary between which and religion did not really exist. Texts composed by Plato, Pythagoras, Zeno, and Epicurius were studied with reverent awe by their disciples, who did their best to live by them.

But never mind all that. Facts get in the way of a good argument. Why on earth is Loftus making these absurd claims? He has his eye on some even sillier claims about the Bible. Here it is:

Early Christians debated doctrine orally; it was Clement of Alexandria, writing in the latter half of the second century AD who was instrumental in overcoming the reluctance to write down any kind of systematic Christian teaching. As a result, later, there was a move to reduce any debate about Christianity to a mere comparison of written documents, and something was lost in the process.

Eh? What about the Didache? A systematic treatment of Christian teaching dating from the late first or early second century: ie, from before St Clement.

He continues:

So once the written word had eclipsed oral tradition in the Church, there was an end to the adaptation to more modern needs of the Christ had said and done. More than one Gospel writer had brought Christ's words and deeds 'up-to-date' by proceeding on the 'Hansard' principle of writing down what would have been said if the speaker had realised what should have been said, thus bringing some authority to bear on the solution of more contemporary problems. But once written down, there would be no further adaptation.

So this is it. Loftus sees a golden age of free-wheeling adaptation in the primitive Church, where nothing was written down so no one could check, and wants us to get back there. Specifically, Loftus thinks that the theology of the authority of bishops, so emphasised by Vatican II, was a late and inauthentic development, and would like to see the Pope 're-think the position of Bishop of Rome'.

Poor old Basil. Anyone can read the Acts of the Apostles and see what hogwash this is. The emphasis on the authentic teaching of the Apostles. The need to go back to St Peter and the others in Jerusalem to check things. Letters going to and fro. And of course St Paul's own letters, which were carefully preserved. It looks as though Loftus, like most liberals, would favour a late date for the Gospels (after St Clement, perhaps?), but where all these fantasies hit the rocks is in the dating of St Paul's letters. We have a fair degree of certainty that the earliest, 1 Thessalonians, was written in or around 51 AD. That is to say, about 20 years after the Passion of Our Lord, perhaps less. Twenty years to fit in Loftus' golden age of purely oral Christianity.

The worst thing is that all the contrasts liberals want to make between 'early' and 'late' theological developments in the New Testament are the wrong way round between the Gospels and the Epistles. Loftus makes a fairly typical suggestion that the Gospels are less emphatic about the Divinity of Our Lord than the Epistles.

Initially, in preaching to the Jews, Peter and Paul had only been able to refer to to the 'exaltation' of Christ after his death. Now, on preaching to the Gentiles, Paul and Barnabas were able to assert the constant divinity of Christ from the moment he was formed in his mother's womb.

But this is backwards. St Paul's Epistles, which assert the Divinity so clearly, came, according to Loftus, decades and decades earlier than the Synoptic Gospels where we it can seem the teaching is more tentative. In the meantime, Loftus tells us, the oral tradition upon which the Gospels were based had been undergoing all kinds of evolution. Is he saying that the Christian message in the Gospels had evolved into something more primitive than what was being written by St Paul so shortly after Jesus' earthly ministry? Or is he saying that the oral tradition was so fixed and stable that what the Gospels recorded was an accurate reflection of the earliest teaching, even when this was several decades out of date? But that somehow this fixed and stable oral tradition had no impact on St Paul?

(No one, incidentally, thinks all three synoptic Gospels were addressed only to Jewish Christians, so the idea that these preserved a primitive teaching suited to a Jewish audience in a sort of time-capsule won't help here.)

Oh dear oh dear, what a dreadful muddle. But it is worth setting this out because you can hear just these kinds of arguments on the lips of liberal Catholics up and down the land. When you hear them spouting this stuff you can also remind them of what Vatican II said:

Dei Verbum, 18-19.
The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. For what the Apostles preached in fulfillment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed on to us in writing: the foundation of faith, namely, the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
19. 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).

These liberals, they accept Vatican II, right? They wouldn't catch them 'rejecting Vatican II' or anything like that, would you?

There are more quotations from Vatican II they might like here.

The Proclamation of the Gospel

As a service to the public, I have put together quotations on a range of themes from Loftus' published writings, mostly his Catholic Times columns, in a dossier here, and made one of his most theologically egregious articles, on the Resurrection of Our Lord, available here.


  1. It's always a good thing when those people reveal what they really think. "Loftus sees a golden age of free-wheeling adaptation in the primitive Church, where nothing was written down so no one could check, and wants us to get back there."

  2. Anonymous5:25 pm

    Could it have been about Lofty that someone wrote "Better to keep silent and let people think you are an ignorant fool, rather than open your mouth and prove them right" ?

  3. "Loftus sees a golden age of free-wheeling adaptation in the primitive Church, where nothing was written down so no one could check, and wants us to get back there."

    Effectively, that is what we had from 1965 until the coming of the authoritative bloggers like Fr Z . All the "because I say so" abuses, like sand in the fonts were suddenly tackled simultaneously across three continents - because it was made easy for ordinary parishioners to check the real situation, and to write effectively to the CDF or other Office. I hope I am not over-simplifying - but the Internet takes power away from these cowboys.

  4. Dr Shaw,

    The theological radicalism of Msgr Loftus continues to unveil ever broader vistas than I imagined. This is a fine fisk, as always.

    One small caveat:

    "St Paul's Epistles, which assert the Divinity so clearly, came, according to Loftus, decades and decades earlier than the Synoptic Gospels..."

    I fear that this gives away too much. The question of dating of the Gospels remains a famously contentious topic in theological circles, even in the more conservative ones; but it is interesting to note that only a century ago, the scholarly consensus for Matthew was in 40's or late 30's. Today the consensus largely has moved to post-70, but there are still Catholic scholars who hold to an earlier dating (and to Matthean priority). But even so, this would place St. Paul's epistles as being, at worst, roughly contemporaneous with the first Synoptic Gospels. Loftus is no better off here.

    What's most troubling is his adoption of the tendentiously familiar modernist historiography painting a Christ who in the earliest and most "primitive" writings appears much less divine - a way of denying Christ's divinity without Msgr Loftus actually coming right out and saying it. It's merely said with a wink and nudge.

    Of course, the more human Christ appears, the more human is the institution he founded, or, as Loftus probably has it, somehow succeeded him (apologies to Loisy). And the more human an institution the Church is, the more chaps like him can have their way with it without any moral qualms.

  5. Dating the Gospels is, as you say, very difficult. The standard thinking is now is to put them all post-70 AD, because they could not possibly have included a genuine prophecy of the Sack of Jerusalem. A very objective view.

    Older liberals put them much later, and I fancy Loftus would like that. But the later you put them, the more difficult is the problem I identified: you can't simultaneously say they are very late and that they are very 'primitive'. You can't have your cake and eat it.

    Personally a date before 70 seems far more plausible. If John came last, which everyone seems to think, you have to account for a fragment of John being dated to pretty early in the 2nd Century, and found a long way from where most people think the thing was composed.

    But I suspect Loftus hasn't caught up with this, it is too recent!

  6. Dr. Shaw,

    Ah, yes, but you are forgetting the ever famous (and never seen) Q Gospel, which is alleged to form part of the basis for Matthew and Luke - surely this must contain (it is alleged) more primitive fragments of heretofore oral history of Christ's doings as a Galilean wonder-worker/social agitator, without all that icky supernatural stuff (start counting off those Jesus Seminar beads now)...

    Either way, however, it's clear that Msgr Loftus, and his confreres, have their theory; it's merely a question of fitting the facts to it as best they can. Or at least as far as a Catholic priest can say it openly without questions from above, which, as we know too well, has been pretty far indeed these last five decades.

  7. Anonymous12:21 pm

    An elementary basic study of Patrology would have helped Msgr Loftus.....unless his memory is fading.