Walter Cardinal Kasper is President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. He was appointed to this post by John-Paul II, and reappointed by Benedict XVI.
In addition, he is President for the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.
Back when he was professor of dogmatic theology at Tubingen University, he wrote Jesus the Christ (Paulist Press 1985). My copy comes with glowing commendations by the late Karl Rahner and Bruce Vawter, a Catholic OT scholar.
Among other things, Kasper says the following:
We owe a second insight to modern form-criticism. It has shown that the gospels are not historical sources in the modern sense but are instead testimonials to the faith of the early churches. They are not primarily interested in the Jesus of history, but are concerned with the Christ who is present in proclamation, liturgy, and the whole life of the churches (32).
It is characteristic of the gospels to mix message and report. Obviously they have to face the problem of the mythization of history, but also that of the historicization of a myth (33).
Myth is the form of understanding proper to an out-of-date epoch of human history: the primitive era or childhood, of mankind (44).
These questions take us to the borderline between permissible and impermissible demythologization. Demythologization is permissible if it helps us to show Jesus Christ as the location of divine and human freedom (48).
The NT accounts of miracles are analogous to, or use themes familiar to us from other ancient sources. There are for example, rabbinic and hellenistic miracle stories of cures, expulsions of demons, raisings from the dead, quellings of storms, and so on. Numerous parallels exist in the case of Jesus’ contemporary, Apollonius of Tyana, and many healings are reported in particular from the sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus.
In view of the parallels which remain, it is hardly possible to reject al of the rabbinical and Hellenistic miracle reports as unhistorical lies and deceit, while accepting the NT accounts at face value as historical.
A number of miracle stories turn out in the light of form criticism to be projections of the experiences of Easter back into the earthly life of Jesus, or anticipatory representations of the exalted Christ. Among these epiphany stories we should probably include the stilling of the storm, the transfiguration, Jesus’ walking on the lake, the feeding of the four (or five) thousand and the miraculous draught of fishes…It is the nature miracles which turn out to be secondary accretions to the original tradition.
The result of all this is that we must describe many of the gospel miracle stories as legendary. Legends of this sort should be examined less for their historical than for their theological content…To show that certain miracles cannot be ascribed to the earthly Jesus does not mean that they have no theological or kerygmatic significance. These non-historical miracle reports are statements of faith about the significance for salvation of the person and message of Jesus (90).
My primary purpose in quoting from Kasper is not to comment on the merits of his position. Rather, this serves to document the mainstream view of Scripture in modern Catholicism. Although Kasper was not a high-ranking prelate at the time he wrote this book, what he wrote was obviously no impediment to his ecclesiastical preferment.
Now, if these statements were made by a man of similar ecclesiastical standing in any other denomination--say, Lutheran or Episcopalian or Presbyterian or Baptist—everyone would grant that his particular denomination was on the liberal end of the theological spectrum.
But when a Catholic scholar and high-placed prelate like Kasper says the very same thing, conservative Catholics rush in to distance their church from this sort of teaching.
Having made my main point, I will offer a few comments on the substance of his claims. I can’t prove my point without quoting him, but having quoted him, I don’t wish to let his assertions go unchallenged.
1.Notice his implicit faith in the form criticism of Bultmann and Dibelius. It is important to remember that form criticism doesn’t bring any new or contrary evidence to the table. It isn’t based on any extracanonical data. Instead, it simply infers an oral prehistory to the gospels, and assumes that the putative life-situation was not the actual setting, but was supplied by the life-situation of the church.
Form criticism does nothing whatsoever to disprove the historicity of the gospels. Indeed, form criticism is impotent to disprove their historicity.
Form criticism can be of some use in literary analysis, but that’s about it.
2.Then you have the thoughtless antithesis between faith and fact.
i) Yes, the gospel writers were men of faith. Faith in what? Faith in whom? They were believers because they believed that something really happened. Their faith was an event-centered faith.
Why is it that highly intelligent men like Kasper are too obtuse to see such an elementary connection? Why do men like Kasper continue to parrot this psychologically implausible dichotomy between faith and fact?
ii) Notice that he doesn’t take his clue from the narrative viewpoint of the gospel-writers themselves. Luke, for one, is very much concerned with the Christ of history, as the history of the Christ intersects with Jewish and Greco-Roman history--while Matthew is deeply interested in Christ as the Omega-point of OT history.
As we all know, the Gospel of Mark is fascinated with the thaumaturgical ministry of Christ as an exorcist and wonder-worker—the sort of thing that Kasper finds quite incredible. But Mark is so impressed by this because he firmly believes that Jesus really did work wonders and cast out demons.
And then there is John. John is the most theologically “advanced” of the four. And yet, at the same time, John’s gospel has the greatest density of eyewitness detail. As the liberal Bishop Robinson once observed, “In fact John is at his most theological when he is most historical, and most historical when he is most theological,” Can we trust the New Testament? (Eerdmans 1977), 91.
For example, Kasper mentions the miracle of loaves and fishes, which he disbelieves. Yet this incident is reported in all four Gospels. John’s account is the most theological. At the same time, his account has the most historical background material.
Kasper doesn’t really listen to the text of Scripture. He comes to the Gospels with this form-critical predefinition of what they will say.
3.Then you have the extracanonical parallels.
i) Either miracles happen or they don’t. If they do, then you will naturally have similar stories of similar miracles. How many different ways are there to report a miraculous healing?
And by the same token, nothing more nearly resembles the story of a true miracle than the story of a false one.
See the eminently sensible comments by his fellow Roman Catholic, P. Benoit, Jesus & the Gospel (Herder & Herder 1973), 1:33-34.
ii) There is nothing in the Biblical worldview to preclude Jews and pagans from exhibiting or exercising paranormal powers. Miracles are attributed to such OT Jews as Moses, Elijah, and Elisha—as well as the Apostles.
And there is, indeed, a confrontation between miracle and magic in both the OT (Exod 7-8) and the NT (Acts 13:11).
iii) Conversely, it is striking that Kasper thinks we should sift the canonical sources, but does nothing at all to sift the extracanonical sources. What are our sources for Apollonius and Asclepius? What is their genre? When were they written? Before or after the NT? What is the interval of time between Asclepius or Apollonius and the earliest record of their life and deeds?
These are all essential and elementary questions. Yet Kasper doesn’t answer a one.
A reported miracle is no more or less credible than the report of the miracle, which is--in turn--no more or less credible than the reporter of the miracle.
iv) Yes, Apollonius was a 1C figure (d. c.96-98). But his biography dates to the early 3C (c.217). This is hardly a historical source on par with 1C biographies (the four Gospels) of a 1C figure (Jesus Christ) based on eyewitness observation or eyewitness testimony.
The issue is not the contemporeity of Jesus and Apollonius, but the contemporeity of the record in relation to the event. Is Kasper really too dense to appreciate the difference that makes?
If the parallels are more than coincidental, then that’s only because Philostratus is imitating the canonical Gospels. Given that this work was commissioned by the wife of Septimius Severus, there is no reason to assume that it was anything other than a piece of counter-Christian propaganda.
v) As to Asclepius, we don’t even know if he ever existed.
vi) Over and above that preliminary question, in what precise respect are the parallels truly parallel? One is struck by the disanalogies rather than analogies. As one scholar compares the two:
<< The patient purified himself or herself at the sacred fountain and offered a sacrifice…At night that person took bedclothes and after leaving a small gift for the god reposed on a pallet in the abaton (halls built for incubation). The person would dream that the god appeared.
The cures at the healing sanctuaries are in a totally different frame of reference from the healings by the spoken word or touch of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.
E. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Eerdmans 2003), 225-26. >>
4.Finally, Kasper assumes that Scripture was not given as a whole, to be believed as a whole. He acts as though we are a liberty to dissemble it and throw away the parts we don’t want to believe in.
Now, this is not a consistent position for either a believer or unbeliever to assume. Each gospel is a narrative package and literary unit. Each Evangelist recorded what he thought was most important, and left out what he thought was less unimportant. (This applies to the OT as well.)
The finished product was never put together to be taken apart. It was never written to be dissected and excised—a verse here, a verse there; a story here, a story there—then stitched back together in a different arrangement with missing parts.
A consistent believer will accept the Bible as the Bible was actually given, while a consistent unbeliever will reject the Bible as given.
Only an utter fool supposes that you can deconstruct a book of the Bible, toss out whatever you’re not prepared to accept, and still imagine that you have a divine revelation in your hands. Kasper is like the idolater who uses half the log for firewood, then bows down to the other half as his god (cf. Isa 44:9-20).