Paper Keys

“A paper key?” you ask.  “A paper key could never open anything.”  Precisely.

In The Desolate City (1986), Anne Roche Muggeridge notes the irony that “modernists are in fact mythologizers, not demythologizers,” as they claim.  “The Church,” she says, “experienced and afterwards always taught the events of Christ’s life as history, not as myth, parable, allegory, or epic poetry,” unlike the various ways in which she addressed “the Book of Jonah, or the Book of Job, or the Song of Songs.” 

But “modernists, by means of the mythological language and concepts of the secularized late twentieth century,” have been busy turning Christ into an idea, and the Church into a not-yet-realized dream of the progressive imagination.

The result has been the manufacture of paper keys – keys consisting of nothing more substantial than the paper whereon the modernist Catholic develops his imaginations.  The grooves and projections of these paper keys correspond to little or nothing at all, whether of the Scriptural record, of the teaching and the history of the Church, or of the reality of human beings.

To accept them requires a parodic version of faith.  It is to invert the directive of the psalmist, and to put one’s trust in princes – in professors of theology, in careerist historians, in promoters of “progress” as defined by the promoters, in political structures, and in reconstituted men and women of the future – rather than in the Lord God. 

Over the next few columns, I’d like to examine a few of these paper keys.

Let’s begin by going straight to the source – the Quelle so-called, or “Q,” as it’s affectionately known in theological circles.

For those not conversant with textual criticism of the New Testament, “Q” is a text of the sayings of Jesus, which, along with the narrative in the Gospel of Mark, is said to form the basis of the three synoptic gospels.  Mark is held to be the earliest gospel, with Matthew using material from Mark along with material from Q, and Luke rearranging material from Matthew and adding material of his own.

It doesn’t matter to me whether or not Q existed.  That’s not my point.  The point is rather that learned tomes are written about Q, and ordinary people taking instruction to become catechists are introduced to Q, and students reading annotated Bibles encounter the fact of Q, as if the question were quite beyond query.

But there’s a problem.  We have no documentary or testamentary evidence of Q.  There’s no manuscript of Q, not a scrap.  There’s no reference to a Q, by any of the New Testament writers, by the early Christians, or by the Church Fathers.  Nor would there have been any reason for them to be quiet about it.  After all, a book containing the sayings of the Lord would be most precious.

Do critics and historians assume, for other cultures and in other circumstances, the existence and the identity and even the contents of a book for which there is not one iota of evidence?  The answer is a flat no.  If anything, their assumptions stray in the opposite direction.

 We have testimony that Homer wrote a comic epic called the Margites.  But most critics assume, as a fact that only the naïve would doubt, that Homer did not write any such thing.  Roman historians refer to the Twelve Tables of the law, inscribed at the insistence of the plebeians so that the patricians would no longer be able to hang them by invented vagaries.  But critics now assume, again as an obvious fact, that there never were any Twelve Tables.

I withhold judgment.  I’m only noting the strange direction taken by the fabricators of Q.  It’s one thing to claim, against rather tenuous testimony, that the Twelve Tables might not have existed.  It’s more dubious to claim that that thing certainly did not exist.  But it is a flight of sheer critical fancy to claim that something certainly did exist, whose existence is confirmed by not one piece of evidence, in an environment, moreover, wherein everyone is writing and talking about its subject! 

We know about the air-headed Gnostic gospels.  We have plenty of pious accounts of the apostles. We have all kinds of precious information passed down from one generation to the next, about when Saint Peter went to Rome, or where Saint John lived in Ephesus.  But we’re supposed to believe in a text of whose existence nobody but the two people who employed it, at quite different times and in different places, seem to have been aware.

We are to do this in this case alone, for there is no similar assumption made about any other text supposed to have existed in the ancient world. 

Someone might object that historical linguists reconstruct languages, or at least putative word-roots, from later developments, so that we have a bank of Proto-Indo-European roots, the ancestors of words in Sanskrit, Greek, Celtic, Germanic, Italic, and so forth.  The analogy is false.  What we’re looking at there is the slow organic development or branching of languages whose later forms are well attested, development that follows certain predictable tracks discernible in historical times also. 

We also have plenty of testamentary, documentary, or archaeological evidence for the movements of speakers in this linguistic family.  Saint Paul preached to Celtic speakers in Anatolia (the Galatians), whose cousins had made their way west into the British Isles.  Nor was there anybody in pre-historic times (they were pre-historic!) who might have written down what these speakers of Proto-Indo-European were doing or saying.

So why all the fuss about Q?  Who benefits?  How does the supposititious Q help us understand the words of Jesus, and live a Christian life?  It doesn’t, not at all.  But presented as something both esoteric and certain, it does sow seeds of doubt among ordinary people, redirecting their trust.  “Don’t listen to those teachers, so authoritarian and so far behind the times,” say the modernist theologians.  “Listen to us.”

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.