76 In keeping with the Lord's command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways:
- orally "by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received - whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit";33
- in writing "by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing".34
Paragraph 76 describes the process by which the Revelation of Jesus Christ has been composed and transmitted through the ages and in our own time. If you are reading this on the posting day, you have an opportunity this weekend to see the Scriptural roots of this paragraph. Matthew 4: 12-21 (Third Sunday of Ordinary Time-A) narrates the beginning of the public life of Jesus—his words, deeds, passion, resurrection, and commissioning. The first “public work” recorded by Matthew is the gathering of an intimate inner circle who will see or witness everything that Jesus teaches and exemplifies. Four of these companions are mentioned by name in Sunday’s text—Simon (eventually Peter), Andrew, James, and John. Clearly the evangelist Matthew is establishing the unique role of the inner circle as those who were “there from the beginning.”
Although the Scripture calls the group by different names—disciples, the twelve—the term apostle came into use for the intimates of Jesus and is found in New Testament letters and other early Church documents. The word “apostle” derives from the Greek “to be sent away,” which indicates that the term “apostle” has a broader meaning than simply closeness to Jesus. The Gospels report others who were close to Jesus—the sisters Martha and Mary, Lazarus, etc.—but there is no record of them being called “apostles.” This name has specific boundaries; it defines one as having been with Jesus from the beginning and as one sent forth or sent away in Matthew 28: 19-20 to preach and baptize to the ends of the earth.
Para. 76 uses the term “Gospel” to embody the full mission and teaching of Jesus, and is somewhat more broad than the term “Gospel” applied to the works of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. One can say historically, beginning with Paul, that the term “preaching the Gospel” [or Good News] of Jesus Christ is essentially preaching Jesus Christ. The written word is a subset of this mission as the text of para. 76 indicates in its segment on writing.
Para. 76 reflects the development of Church history and Scriptural study over the past two centuries, particularly in its recognition of multiple stages and sources in the handing on of tradition. (The “legal” boundaries for Catholic biblical scholars are summarized in the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s statement of 1964.) The Catechism endorses the fruits of modern scholarship on the process of the development and passing down of the Gospel through its sourcing from Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.
It is easier to explain the process by its aberrations. The history of Biblical interpretation is complex, but pastorally speaking, when I was a child I was taught that the four Gospels were literally inspired, word for word, directly from God. If you Google images of St. Matthew, for example, you will find a number with an angel at his side dictating his text. The official Church never quite taught this level of literary inspiration, but it did hold to the substantive historicity of the Gospels, including the Infancy narratives. That the four Gospels differed in many ways was managed by synthesizing the four into a general narrative of understanding and faith.
This solution was useful for much of the Church’s history, as the Biblical texts themselves were not a staple of the uneducated, proclaimed only at Mass, and cited only as proof texts by Church scholars. Much of Martin Luther’s reform agenda was the accusation that the Catholic Church had drifted far from the Bible itself in its beliefs and practices. Protestants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries revisited the sacred texts with multiple tools of literary and historical analysis. Catholic scholars were permitted to join in this research in 1943 by Pope Pius XII. The principles we use and teach today are the fruits of the scholarship of the last two centuries.
Para. 76 recognizes the existence of an oral tradition of Jesus’ ministry that predates anything put to paper. By today’s calendar Jesus died in 27 A.D. The first written book of what we know today as the New Testament is St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians in about 51 A.D. The first Gospel, that of St. Mark, was probably written between 65-70 A.D. Thus, the Church acknowledges, in the first part of para. 76, that for a generation or longer the tradition of faith was carried forth through oral traditions or telling. Sorting out the contents of each oral tradition from the later written texts is somewhat hypothetical, though it does seem that Matthew and Luke had possession of a “Q Source” that was unavailable to Mark, who wrote earlier. The Church holds that during this oral stage of transmission the accurate content was assured by the Holy Spirit.
Again, it is impossible to know the exact details of the passage from an oral to a written tradition of handing on the Good News. The Catechism does not say that the two methods are separate or mutually exclusive. The safest thing to say is that the oral preaching of Jesus by the Apostles and the written word we call Scripture merged together in the first century. Note in para. 76 that the New Testament was not written exclusively by Apostles but more in fidelity to their preaching. St. Luke, in the opening lines of his Gospel, admits to his patron Theophilus that he is not an eyewitness of Jesus but a historian (and certainly a theologian) who has traced the Jesus narrative much as a modern-day historian, looking back to written and spoken sources. Para. 76 emphasizes that the next generation of witnesses and writers enjoy the same wisdom of the Spirit as the Apostles. However, as we saw in earlier Catechism texts, the age of formal Revelation of Jesus Christ ends with the death of the last Apostle, believed to be St. John around 100 A.D.
When we proclaim our faith in the Nicene Creed at every Sunday Mass, one of the acclamations is belief in “one, holy, catholic [universal], and apostolic Church. Para. 76 explains the “apostolic nature” of the Church and how, by the guidance of the Spirit, the successors of the apostles—the bishops—are empowered to teach with authority so long as they are faithful to the corpus of Apostolic preaching and writing passed down to us from Jesus.