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There Was No Ur-Gospel

Some years ago the mail brought me the latest issues of World, an Evangelical biweekly, and the Christian Research Institute’s Journal, a bimonthly from the ministry that airs “The Bible Answer Man” radio program.

I had to laugh as I placed the magazines side by side on my desk. It was a case of an editor’s worst nightmare: the covers were nearly identical, each touting a breakthrough story on the “Pensacola outpouring,” an emotion-laden and, apparently, lucrative mega-revival at an Assemblies of God Church in Florida.

Not only were the main stories the same, but the cover photographs were of the same preacher—and the photograph on the cover of the Journal appeared also on the lead page of the story inside World.

I  sympathized with the editors—and with their clerical staffs, who must have received lots of calls from curious readers wanting to know who borrowed from whom. The undoubted answer: neither. Aside from the common photograph, which was taken by an Associated Press photographer, the articles were crafted independently, neither magazine being aware of what the other was doing.

Yes, the magazines published at the same time. Yes, the stories read similarly. Yes, the stories took similar editorial stands (skeptical) regarding the authenticity of the phenomenon. But the writers didn’t borrow from one another—and they didn’t borrow from an unacknowledged third source.

That seemed self-evident to me. I didn’t need to search for editorial collusion. I didn’t need to search for an “ur-document” that formed the basis of the two articles. I didn’t need to search for anything beyond the obvious, which was that two similar magazines, covering the same story, ended up with similar-looking and similar-reading articles: just the kind of thing that happens every day in the sports pages of competing newspapers.

But what would certain contemporary biblical scholars say if they were to apply their methodologies to these magazines? We know what they say about the Gospels.

Do the synoptic Gospels have similar, even identical, passages? Aha!The writers, whoever they were (probably not the men to whom the Gospels have been ascribed traditionally, say these scholars) must have taken material from an unacknowledged (and, to us, undiscovered) source. Let’s call it Q (from the German Quelle = “source”).

The one thing these biblical scholars know for sure is that any account we read must have been taken from an earlier account that is lost to us. It can’t be the case that Matthew and Mark and Luke wrote their Gospels based on their own legwork, occasionally using the same witnesses’ testimonies and writing more or less independently. They must have plagiarized a now-lost document. We know it must be so because all old documents are derived from even older documents that we can find no trace of. Isn’t that how it works?

I am reminded of the salutary words written by A. H. N. Green-Armytage many years ago:

“There is a world—I do not say a world in which all scholars live but one at any rate into which all of them sometimes stray, and which some of them seem permanently to inhabit—which is not the world in which I live.

“In my world, if The Times and The Telegraph both tell one story in somewhat different terms, nobody concludes that one of them must have copied the other, nor that the variations in the story have some esoteric significance. But in that world of which I am speaking this would be taken for granted. There, no story is ever derived from facts but always from somebody else’s version of the same story. . . .

“In my world, almost every book, except some of those produced by Government departments, is written by one author. In that world almost every book is produced by a committee, and some of them by a whole series of committees.

“In my world, if I read that Mr. Churchill, in 1935, said that Europe was heading for a disastrous war, I applaud his foresight. In that world no prophecy, however vaguely worded, is ever made except after the event. In my world we say, ‘The First World War took place in 1914-1918.’ In that world they say, ‘The world-war narrative took shape in the third decade of the twentieth century.’

“In my world men and women live for a considerable time—seventy, eighty, even a hundred years—and they are equipped with a thing called memory. In that world (it would appear) they come into being, write a book, and forthwith perish, all in a flash, and it is noted of them with astonishment that they ‘preserve traces of primitive tradition’ about things which happened well within their own adult lifetime.”

And so it must have been with the World and Journal pieces. The writers may have borrowed from one another but, more likely, borrowed from an earlier, uncredited report of the Pensacola events. That earlier report is now lost to posterity—someone, perhaps, having accidently pressed the delete button without first having made a backup.

But no matter. The true account of the goings on in Florida can be retrieved, given enough sweat equity. We can go behind the embellishments of the magazine articles to the simple, unadorned truth of the source each magazine borrowed from. The ur-document can be reconstructed from the existing stories by working backwards. 

When we have reonstructed it, the ur-document will need a scholarly-sounding name. I propose that we call it N, from Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe’s reply to the German call to surrender Bastogne: “Nuts!”

But all that is a task for scholars armed with pinking shears and with more credulity than I can muster. Me? I’ll just read such magazines and accept them at face value, simple believer that I am.

Written By: Karl Keating









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