Biblical Scholarship & the Faith of the Church

 Kenneth D. Whitehead


Biblical scholarship is usually granted instant credibility today because it is considered "scientific." Thus, the findings of the Jesus Seminar, however ill founded, nevertheless quickly became front-page news. The assumption is that "science" has once again exploded claims about the Jesus found in the New Testament and preached by the Church.


On the other hand, the faith of the Church, handed down in the Church from the apostles of Jesus, is not defined as science in the modern sense. It is, therefore, not granted the same status in today’s world. The Church knows, however, that "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Timothy 1:15); therefore, she continues preaching the words of Jesus both asHis words and as true words, regardless of the supposed findings of such groups as the Jesus Seminar. It is not that the Church fails to respect scholarship, but she does have problems with certain kinds of scholarship. For at least the last few centuries, the Church has had to contend with the effects on the faith of a certain type of biblical scholarship that has too often aimed at undermining and discrediting certain truths testified to in Scripture that the Church considers essential to her faith.


Since the 18th-century Enlightenment in particular, there has been a formidable procession of scholars wielding modern critical methodologies aimed at explaining away the transcendental, supernatural, and miraculous elements found in Scripture, usually on the a priori grounds that none of these things could be true. Therefore, critical methodologies have had to be used to "prove" them untrue.

The Historical-Critical Method

What is generally called the historical-critical method has almost by definition been limited to providing naturalistic, empirical, and evidentiary explanations for what is written in Scripture. In the past, Catholic scholars were not the foremost practitioners of this method. However, following Pope Leo XIII's 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus (On the Study of Sacred Scripture) and, especially, Pope Pius XII's 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (On Promotion of Biblical Studies), Catholic exegetes have gone into the historical-critical method with a vengeance, though not always with the happiest results.


It was always likely that a rigorous if not hostile historical-critical examination of the Holy Bible and the scriptural foundations of the Christian faith would be undertaken. Even as Catholics continue to affirm that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and rightly deplore the use of scholarship to undermine the faith, we still cannot regret all that has been learned about the Bible over the past two centuries by the use of critical methods. Nothing that is itself true, provided that it is true, can ultimately be harmful to the Christian faith.


In 1993, for example, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a lengthy, in-depth document on biblical scholarship entitledThe Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. While emphasizing more traditional methods of exegesis, especially the relationship of exegesis to theology, the document also describes the historical-critical method as an "indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts." But this document also specifies that, "the historical-critical method cannot lay claim to enjoying a monopoly.... It must be conscious of its limits, as well as to the dangers to which it is exposed [emphasis added]."


The problem, then, lies not in the use of the method as such, but rather how it is used, by whom, and with what prior assumptions. Obviously, if a critic approaches the Bible with the conviction that miracles cannot occur, it is not likely that his critical evaluation will exhibit much appreciation for the meaning of the miraculous and supernatural elements that Scripture undeniably presents.


Can such methodologies be used to serve the faith? Yes, provided that the Christian scholar continues to view his subject as the inspired Word of God and that both the limitations and dangers of such methodologies are kept in mind.


More is required, though. The Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, lays down three essential rules the Christian interpreter of Scripture must follow. "Since sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted with its divine authorship in mind," Dei Verbum teaches: (1) "...attention must be devoted to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, (2) taking into account the Tradition of the Church, and (3) the analogy of faith, if we are to derive their true meaning from the sacred texts. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules [emphasis added]." By the term "rules," the council fathers meant that the exegete could not interpret texts in a way that contradicts either established doctrines of the faith or interpretations of other passages of Scripture accepted by the Church.


Many Catholic scholars are working within these guidelines. Even a superficial acquaintance with some of the biblical scholarship being conducted by scholars publicly identified as Catholics today, however, raises the question of whether these Vatican II guidelines really are being observed by all, or even most, contemporary Catholic scholars in the field. This is a question we must look at, but first, we need to glance briefly at the broad general picture that seems to find credence among many Scripture scholars today after more than 200 years of "critical" scholarship.

Who Do You Say That I Am?

The results of biblical scholarship that generally come to public notice generally have to do with Jesus. This is not surprising. After all, the principal question today, as it was in New Testament times, remains, "What do you think of the Christ? Whose Son is he?" (see Matthew 22:42). It is a question that has to be answered in every generation. Among biblical scholars, however, there seem to be as many answers to the question as there are authors attempting to write "lives" of Jesus. To name only a few beyond the stereotype of Jesus the ideal man and ethical teacher, there is Jesus the dreamy Galilean romantic, Jesus the political revolutionary, Jesus the Messianic plotter, Jesus the magician and wonder worker, Jesus the Mediterranean peasant, and, more recently, Jesus the marginal Jew.


The many attempts of modern scholarship to describe "the historical Jesus"—as opposed to "the Christ of faith" preached by the Church—have a long history, rooted especially in the perennial ambition of German scholarship to recreate history wie es eigentlich gewesen ist (how it really was or what really happened). In the first decade of the 20th century, Albert Schweitzer, in his famous book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, chronicled the previous century's mainly German efforts to get at the "real" Jesus behind the myths and legends supposed to have been invented by the Church and recorded in the New Testament. Since Schweitzer wrote, we are told that there has been a second and even a third "quest for the historical Jesus."


Schweitzer himself wrote, "There is no historical task which so reveals a man's true self as the writing of a life of Jesus.... Each individual creates him in accordance with his own character." In a judgment not without relevance to our present inquiry, Schweitzer also identified the motive for much of the modern historical study of the Bible, describing the whole enterprise as "a struggle against the tyranny of dogma [emphasis added]." That the verifiable results of much modern biblical scholarship would seem to bear out this last judgment of Albert Schweitzer has been noted by more than a few knowledgeable observers. For example, the young Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, writing as a theologian in his introduction to Christianity (1968), provides an apt description of what he called the cliché about Jesus that has been established as a result of modern scholarship:


Who was Jesus of Nazareth, really? How did he understand himself? If we believe the modern cliché…this is perhaps the way things happened: we must picture Jesus as a kind of prophetic teacher who came on the scene in the overheated eschatological atmosphere of the late Judaism of his time, and, in accordance with this eschatological high-pressure situation, preached the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God. At first this was to be an entirely temporal thing; the Kingdom of God [meant] the end of the world.

This message, though, was misunderstood. The future Cardinal Ratzinger goes on to explain that:


For reasons, which can no longer be properly reconstructed, Jesus was executed and died a failure. Afterwards, in a way that can no longer be discerned, a belief in his resurrection arose. The idea was that he still "lived" on or at least he still "meant" something very significant. Gradually, the idea emerged...that Jesus would return as the Son of Man, or the Messiah.


The next step was to project this hope back upon the historical Jesus, put it all in his own mouth, and then re-interpret him accordingly. Thus were things re-arranged so that Jesus appeared to have announced himself as the Son of Man who was to come, or the Messiah.


And thus, in this brief reconstruction, Ratzinger explained how mainstream modern scholarship, supposedly looking only at the historical evidence and the "facts," has tried to reinterpret the phenomenon of Jesus. Ratzinger had much more to add in his Introduction to Christianity, but we can move directly to his conclusion:


To anyone who thinks historically, the whole theory amounts to a really absurd picture, even though it still attracts hordes of believers. For my part, I must confess that, even apart from my Christian faith, and simply on the basis of my own knowledge of history, I would sooner and more easily believe that God became man than that such a conglomeration of hypotheses could ever possibly be correct.

In short, the faith of the Church, according to Cardinal Ratzinger, does not stand up at all badly by comparison with what the "best" modern scholarship has come up with. How do some of our contemporary Catholic exegetes view the matter?

America's Foremost Catholic Biblical Scholar?

Msgr. George A. Kelly in his book. The New Biblical Theorists (1983), looks carefully at the work of the late Sulpician priest Fr. Raymond Brown as the most prominent member of a whole school of post-Vatican-II Catholic exegetes committed to critical methods. He shows Fr. Brown and his "school" to be rather far from being in compliance with the requirements for sound Catholic exegesis laid down by Vatican II.


Although Fr. Brown and his typical colleagues have customarily claimed to be interpreting Scripture in accordance withProvidentissimus Deus and Divino Afflante Spiritu, Msgr. Kelly shows the reality to be rather different. Little attention is generally paid by most of these new Catholic exegetes to the Tradition of the Church or to the analogy of faith; they regularly approach Scripture piecemeal, in isolation, and from an almost wholly naturalistic perspective. Msgr. Kelly identifies numerous opinions of Fr. Brown that appear to be in conflict with the established faith of the Church, such as:


·         The stories of Christ's birth represent dubious history.

·         The virginal conception of Jesus is an unresolved historical problem.

·         Any idea that Christ instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper must be "nuanced."

·         The Twelve were neither missionaries nor bishops.

·         Sacramental powers were given to the whole Christian community (not just to the "ordained" clergy).

·         Vatican II was "biblically naive" when it called the Catholic bishops successors to the apostles, and so on.

When such opinions as these—and we have cited only a few identified by Msgr. Kelly—are tranquilly espoused by the man considered to be America's foremost Catholic biblical scholar, then it would seem that there is a very real problem with some Catholic biblical scholarship today as it relates to the faith of the Church. The Tradition of the Church, particularly the Church's living magisterium, is, in fact, rarely even mentioned by most of America's contemporary Scripture scholars. It is not so much that they adopt a position of open dissent from the teachings of the magisterium, as so many moral theologians do today: On the contrary, they customarily claim to be wholly loyal to the Church and her teachings. In practice, though, they lecture, write, and publish as if the magisterium did not exist.

Msgr. Meier's Contribution To The Fray

Typically, many of these Catholic scholars appear proud to be considered as simply scholars committed to modern critical methods rather than Catholics committed to the faith. One contemporary scholar, Msgr. John Meier of the University of Notre Dame, in a book on the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew, that attracted considerable attention when it appeared in 1991, states in his introduction that it was his conscious ambition to "prescind from what Christian faith or later Church teaching says about Jesus, without either affirming or denying such claims." He writes, "I will try to bracket what I hold by faith and examine only what can be shown to be certain or probable by historical research and argumentation."


Whatever else might be said about Msgr. Meier's plan, we can surely conclude on the basis of his own words that it decidedly does not square with what Vatican II says about conducting Christian biblical scholarship. His whole proceeding, in fact, entails doing exactly what Vatican II taught that a Catholic exegete should never do, namely, prescind from the faith of the Church and the analogy of faith. More than that, there is something very disingenuous (if not actually dishonest) in asserting conclusions on historical grounds that must necessarily be disavowed on faith grounds—if one truly holds the faith. For example, concerning the "brothers" of Jesus mentioned in Matthew 12:46, Mark 3:31, and Luke 8:19, Msgr. Meier states that viewed simply from a philological and historical point of view, "the most probable opinion is that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were his siblings." Yet, as everyone knows, the Church affirms the perpetual virginity of Mary, and therefore, Jesus could not have had any siblings. However, we might interpret the New Testament texts in question.


Both of these views, the probable "historical" view and the fixed and firm "faith" view cannot be correct, and it is not at all clear what purpose is served when a member of the faculty at a Catholic university insists on promoting what can only appear to be some kind of double truth. His announced method allows him to deconstruct the New Testament as thoroughly as any atheist does, as thoroughly as the Jesus Seminar does—and then blandly announce that he holds on faith what he has just judged improbable or impossible by reason. In the present intellectual climate, his colleagues no doubt honor him for his unflinching "honesty" in the face of the "facts." Unfortunately, it is not clear to the outside observer that all of his facts arefacts. Moreover, in the nature of the case, to prescind from the faith comes perilously close to disregarding, if not abandoning, the faith for all practical purposes.


Without being able to examine this particular scholar in any further detail, we can nevertheless conclude on the basis of what we have seen that there is a widespread and serious disjunction between the approaches, methods, and results of the "latest" Catholic biblical scholarship and the faith of the Church.

Fr. Boismard Of The Ecole Biblique

Is this downplaying and even prescinding from the faith in some current Catholic biblical scholarship purely an American problem? No. Take the example of a prominent French Catholic scholar, the Dominican priest, Fr. M.-E. Boismard. For 43 years, he has been a professor at the famous Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, the prestigious institution that produced the famous Jerusalem Bible. Fr. Boismard has a long list of scholarly publications and is apparently very highly regarded in the field. How does this distinguished Dominican approach his work? Does he adhere to the threefold rule for biblical scholarship laid down in Article 12 of Vatican II's Dei Verbum" The very title of one of his recent works provides us with an immediate answer: The title (translated) is Should We Still Be Speaking about the Resurrection? (1995).


The first reaction of the average Catholic to this question would surely be: Can we fail to speak about the resurrection from the perspective of faith if the New Testament and the Creed do? Fr. Boismard places great emphasis on the fact that the Nicene Creed speaks of the resurrection of the dead, not of the body; and he has a theory that there really is no resurrection for us, properly speaking, but only immortality of the soul in the Greek sense. He appears to hold, following on a minute examination of the relevant texts in the New Testament, that eternal damnation really means annihilation of the unrepentant; he apparently cannot abide a God who would keep souls in being to punish them for all eternity. His main point, though, is that the resurrection of Jesus does not mean resurrection for us; when dead bodies decay, they are gone forever. The Apostle's Creed, however, nevertheless continues to speak of "the resurrection of the body," as does The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which includes as one of its headings, "Christ's Resurrection and Ours."


In his most recent book, The Dawn of Christianity, which bears the subtitle Before the Birth of Dogmas (1998), Fr. Boismard reinforces our impression that, for all practical purposes, he has simply abandoned the Catholic faith. This book covers the early years of Christianity up to near the end of the first century when, according to current scholarly opinion, most of the Gospels were finally written down. It is important for Fr. Boismard's thesis that dogmas came to "birth"—and that there was a time before they came to birth.


We know that dogmas (or doctrines) do "develop," of course. In this book, however, Fr. Boismard does not deal with the "development" of dogmas or doctrines based on an original revelation coming from the words and acts of Christ. His approach seems to assume that there was never any definite original revelation. His idea seems to be that these dogmas simply grew up in the Church, sometimes on the basis of influences from other sources than the Gospels. Thus, to take the example of the divinity of Christ, he flatly asserts that in Mark, supposedly the "most primitive" of the four Gospels, "Jesus is not God." Only later, and certainly not until around 80 AD, did the "final redactor" of the late Gospel of John, under the supposed influence of Philo of Alexandria, identify Jesus as God, adding at that point the phrase, "and the Word was God" to John 1:1.


The way in which a number of other Church dogmas allegedly came to birth in the same fashion as the dogma of the divinity of Christ are also covered in this book. While we cannot analyze them in detail, we can summarize briefly a couple of Fr. Boismard's other conclusions on the virginal conception and the Trinity.


While admitting that the virginal conception of Jesus is reported in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, Fr. Boismard nevertheless concludes that these accounts are "late redactions," the one in Luke modifying an original account in which Fr. Boismard claims it was originally written that Jesus had been conceived in the normal manner of all human beings. How he could know this in the absence of any actual text of this earlier version of Luke is apparently one of the mysteries of modern biblical scholarship inaccessible to the uninitiated.


Fr. Boismard asks whether Jesus Himself believed in the Trinity, along with the first Christians. He points out that the dogma presupposes Greek philosophy, which recognizes distinctions between "substance" (one and unique) and "persons" (three) and concludes from this that Jesus and the apostles did not believe in, and could not have believed in, the Trinity. These particular distinctions, of course, were indeed made when the Church finally defined the dogma at the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century; but this in no way means that the Trinity was not "revealed," nor that the first Christians could not have believed it before its final formulation. Fr. Boismard insists that the Trinitarian formula in Matthew 28:19 does not go back to Jesus but was added by the "final redactor" of Matthew, again, around the year 80 AD—we begin to see why so many "layers" and "redactions" are necessary!


We may perhaps bring this rather unedifying recital to an end by mentioning that, according to Fr. Boismard's interpretation, the final redactor of John's Gospel added the phrase, "and the Word was God" to John I: I to compete with the cult of the goddess Artemis, daughter of Zeus, which was flourishing at the time at Ephesus in Asia Minor. How could the lowly and obscure crucified Jesus possibly compete with the splendid Artemis and her temple at Ephesus, one of the ancient Wonders of the World? Only if He Himself were God and the Son of God. Ergo, add an appropriate phrase to that effect to the prologue of the Gospel of John and make Jesus God!


All this would be laughable if it were not so sad—and if the stakes for the faith were not so high. It would certainly appear, though, that the faith of the Church is being challenged by scholars far beyond the ranks of the Jesus Seminar; the faith of the Church is evidently being equally challenged by some of the scholars supposedly within the Church's own ranks.


Kenneth D. Whitehead, a writer, editor, and translator, is a former US assistant secretary of education.