Free From All Error: The Holy Scriptures by Rev. William G. Most Part 1

Free From All Error:

Authorship, Inerrancy, Historicity of Scripture, Church Teaching, and Modern Scripture Scholars

Rev. William G. Most

Chapter 1: Inspiration and Authorship 


The most remarkable face concerning Holy Scripture is that it is not only the Word of God but that God Himself, the Holy Spirit, is its chief author. This the Church tells us. At the same time, the Church also says that there is a human author, who remains free yet infallibly does what God wants him to do. How is all of this possible? What does it really mean to say that God is the author?


Before answering those questions, another important fact strikes us. A record from the fifth or sixth century of the Church states for the first time that God is the author of Holy Scripture. Ancient Statutes of the Church, a document from that period, says that a man who is to be ordained a bishop must first be asked, “if he believes that God is the one and same author of the New and Old Testament....”

There are earlier statements about Scripture, but there is none in which God is explicitly identified as their author. For example, about 95 AD, Pope St. Clement I wrote this to Corinth: “You have studied the sacred writings, which are true, which are through the Holy Spirit” (1:45). Athenagoras, a second century apologist, spoke of the Holy Spirit as using the human writers “as if a flutist breathed into his flute” (Legation 9). A bit later, about 181 AD, St. Theophilus of Antioch wrote, “Moses ... or rather, the Word of God, who used him as an instrument, said, ‘In the beginning God made heaven and earth”’ (To Autolycus 2:10). Around 200 AD St. Hippolytus said of the prophets that “like instruments, always having the Word as a plectrum (a pick), united with themselves, in themselves, when moved by Him, they announced what God willed” (On Antichrist 2). While not explicitly saying that God is the author of Holy Scripture, these texts present the concept of God’s authorship because He uses humans as instruments. It will be both interesting and helpful to investigate how it is that only after five or six centuries of existence did the Church clearly teach that God is the author of Holy Scripture. The key is found in the words of our Lord at the Last Supper: “The Holy Spirit ... will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all I have said to you” (John 14:26). This text does not mean that there would be new revelations. No, the great Deposit of Faith was complete when the last Apostle died and the New Testament was finished. After that point, we receive no new public revelation, though there are private revelations. (The word private is not very helpful, but it is standard; even Fatima, though addressed to the world, is technically a private revelation.)


Our Lord promised the Church, not new revelations, but an ever-deeper penetration into the Deposit of Faith. A striking instance is the teaching on the Immaculate Conception, which was defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854. Was the dogma of the Immaculate Conception so clearly present in Scripture so that without the help of the Church one could see it? Not really. But with the help of the Church, we know, thanks to Pius IX, that this dogma is implied in the words of God to the serpent in Genesis 3:15: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.” The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is similarly implied in the greeting of the archangel to the Virgin Mary: “Hail full of grace” (Luke 1:28). (It should be noted that there is debate about the interpretation of Genesis 3:15 and the translation of Luke 1:28.)  So, if Mary was never under the dominion of Satan, being in a perpetual state of enmity with him, she must have been immaculately conceived. Similarly, her being “full of grace” implies the grace of the Immaculate Conception. Nonetheless we need the help of the Church to be sure of these implications.


What of the words of the Fathers of the first centuries? Teachings found in the early Fathers are thought to imply the Immaculate Conception. They often spoke in glowing, sweeping terms about Mary’s holiness. That could imply an Immaculate Conception. Again, the Fathers, practically all of them, speak of Mary as a New Eve. St. Paul had called our Lord “a New Adam”—the new head of the race, who reverses the damage resulting from the sin of the first Adam. The Fathers add that Mary shares in that work, in undoing the harm resulting from the sin of the first Eve. But then, one could argue: If Mary is the New Eve, and since the first Eve had no sin when she began her existence, Mary must have been conceived immaculate. The trouble here is that not one of the Fathers ever reasoned in this way about the Immaculate Conception.


Since both Scripture and the Fathers were unclear regarding Mary’s immaculateness, there was room for denial. And denial came from a surprising source: St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In the twelfth century, Bernard, who was so fond of devotion to Mary, clearly denied Mary’s Immaculate Conception.  Beginning with St. Bernard. Then, most of the major theologians of the Middle Ages, including even St. Thomas Aquinas, denied the Immaculate Conception.

The tide began to turn with the help of Duns Scotus (c.12651308). Gradually the popes began siding with the arguments for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The result was that a century and a half before the definition of the Immaculate Conception, the whole Church had come to believe the doctrine. 

Now we can see that the Immaculate Conception was quite unclear, even dim, in the first centuries of the Church. Yet later, under the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church was enabled to see it clearly, even to define it. Therefore, we need not be surprised to find, at a comparatively late date, a statement by the Church that God is the principal author of Holy Scripture.


Additional statements by the Church were to follow, after some centuries. For example, Peter, Bishop of Antioch, asked Pope Leo IX to send him a correct profession of faith. Leo complied. “I believe,” wrote the Pope, “ ... that there is one author of the New and Old Testament, of the law and Prophets and Apostles, God, and almighty Lord” (April 13, 1053). We find many similar statements later: in the Council of Florence (1441); in the Council of Trent (1546): in Leo XIII’s Proventissimus Deus (1893); in Benedict XV’s Spiritus Paraclitus (1920); in Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943).


Vatican II, in its Constitution on Divine Revelation. n. 11, taught that “Holy Mother Church, from the apostolic faith, considers the entire books of the Old and New Testament, with all their parts, as sacred and canonical because, being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author....”  Having accepted the Church’s pronouncement, we still need to know what it means to say that God is the chief author of Scripture. In other words, precisely how does He interact with the human writer? A few authors suggest that God dictated the words of Scripture to the human writer, as a man might dictate to a secretary. But then the question arises as to how the human being could also be called an author? And what of the words of St. Paul in I Corinthians 1:14-18, where Paul’s memory wakes up, as it were, in stages?


First Paul says he is glad that he baptized only two persons, Crispus and Gaius, so those clique-loving Corinthians could not say that they had such a special attachment to St. Paul. Then he adds, as his memory awakens, that he also baptized the household of Stephanas. And, in a further awakening, he adds that he is not sure if he baptized any others. Such a gradual gathering of recollections hardly coincides with the idea that the omniscient God was dictating those words to Paul. Though the Church has never condemned it, this theory of dictation was generally given up by the end of the nineteenth century. In the sixteenth century, Sixtus of Siena suggested that Scripture was a merely human product that the Church later approved. In this view, of course, God would not be the author of Scripture at all. Hence Vatican Council I explicitly rejected this theory, saying, “The Church however considers them [the books of Scripture] sacred and canonical, not because they were written by mere human industry and were then approved by her authority, nor because they contain revelation without error, but because, since they were written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author” (EB 77). Vatican I also said that it would not be enough to say that the books of Scripture “contain revelation without error.” They do that, of course, but that point alone would not be enough to establish the fact that God is actually the author of Scripture. To contain revelation without error is largely negative. It is a protection against mistakes, which is different from divine authorship.


Late in the nineteenth century, Cardinal Franzelin developed a different theory of inspiration, which enjoyed much popularity for a while. He thought that divine inspiration affected the human writer only as far as the content of Scripture was concerned. The composition and verbal expression, Franzelin thought, were contributed by the human writer.


This theory was an improvement over the earlier attempts, but it, too, was insufficient. It made an artificial division, and did not adequately explain how God can really be called the author. The view of Cardinal Franzelin, accordingly, has been abandoned.


M. J. Lagrange, a great Scripture scholar closer to our time, suggested that inspiration is primarily a divine illumination of the mind of the human writer, making him able to judge in a higher, clearer, and more certain light. But again, this seems more like assistance on the part of God, not authorship by God.


Pierre Benoit, in 1965, suggested that God’s influence on the speculative mind of the human writer was a revelation. That is, it gave the writer new content, new material, while God’s influence on the practical working of the man’s mind, in composition and communication, would be called inspiration. But inspiration does not always or necessarily include revelation of facts not previously known to the human author.


Drawing on some of the more recent statements of the Church, let us attempt to go beyond these theories. Pope Pius XII, in his great Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), wrote this: “The sacred writer in producing the sacred book is the organon, that is, the instrument of the Holy Spirit, an instrument living and endowed with reason.... He, working under inspiration, still uses his own faculties and powers in such a way that all can easily gather from the book he produces ‘the proper character, and, as it were, the individual lines and characteristics”’ of the human writer.


Pius XII was quoting, in part, from the Spiritus Paraclitus of Pope Benedict XV (1920). He wanted to draw the lines in such a way that both God and the human writer would be true authors, even though God would be the principal author, really in control of the situation. To bring out the role of God, the Pope spoke of God as the principal cause, the human as the instrumental cause. Yet, to show that the human was not like a lifeless instrument—a pen or a typewriter— he added that the human writer did utilize his own talents and powers so that his distinctive style and character became apparent. Hence we see how it is that not all things in Scripture are in magnificent literary style. If God alone had produced them, of course, they would be. But the human writer retains his own characteristics, even under inspiration. How is such a combination as this possible? God is transcendent, completely above and beyond our categories and classifications. His knowing is unlike ours. Human beings have both an active and a passive way of knowing things. When we know in a passive way, we take on an impression from outside ourselves, much as a tablet of wax takes on the impression of a signet ring. But this cannot be the way in which God knows. He would then be receiving something He did not have before. He cannot receive for He lacks nothing.  When a human knows actively, he knows something is happening simply because he is causing it. A blind man pushing a chair knows the chair is moving because he is pushing it. But while the blind man is limited, God is not. The active way is not a complete explanation, but it is a small part of the answer. Therefore, God’s way of knowing is unlike any knowing we can imagine. It is simply transcendent. Similarly, God can use a human as an instrument, insuring that the human writes all God wants, as He wants, yet leaving the human writer free to utilize his own human skills and characteristics.


A comparison may be helpful. We want to consider two modes, or manners, in which God affects people by his grace, even outside of inspiration. First, through ordinary actual graces, God guides and moves a person to reach the right thought and decision in a process that is commonly done step-by-step. This is a discursive process. In this mode, God works mostly through the human faculties, causing them, as it were, to churn out the needed effect in such a way that the human being is active too, while receiving all the power to act from God.


But there is a higher manner in which God moves souls. It is by way of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. (The Gifts are not confined to moving a man to decide and act; they do other things too. But here we are considering only one kind of effect of the Gifts.) When God moves a man via the Gifts, the man does not need any step-by-step process to reach the right idea and decision. The answer is, as it were, dropped ready-made into the hopper of his mind. The man’s human faculties have little to do with generating the thought. The man’s cooperation consists largely in consenting to be moved in this way.


Something comparable happens when God inspires a human writer. The human writer’s faculties and powers are indeed somewhat active (not as active as in the first mode), and somewhat passive (as in the case of a man being moved by the Gifts). In this way, God has full control, fully produces the sacred book; yet the human puts his imprint on the style and expression as much as even a lifeless instrument would do when handled by an artist.


So we can see how two things can be said in the book of the prophet Amos. In chapter one, we see that we are about to read “the words of Amos.” Yet at the end of the same short book, we find: “Says the Lord your God.”

Chapter 2: Which Books Are Inspired?


We saw in chapter 1 that Holy Scripture has God for its author. But how do we know just which books are inspired and have God as author? If someone were to reply that we just accept the decision of the Church, the answer would not be incorrect. But there would still seem to be a danger of reasoning in a vicious circle, in which we say that we believe that these books are inspired because the Church tells us they are inspired and that we believe the Church because inspired Scripture shows that Christ gave the Church the mandate to teach.  There is a way out of this circle. To find it, it will help if we review some attempts that simply do not work.  Long ago, in 1910, Professor Gerald Birney Smith, of the University of Chicago, gave a paper to the 28th annual Baptist Congress. The next year it was published, somewhat revised, in The Biblical World 37 (pp. 19-29). Smith’s frankness was really remarkable. He reviewed every way he knew to determine which books are or are not inspired. (In the first centuries, many works were circulating as Gospels, with the names of various apostles on them, yet those books are not accepted as inspired today. Hence our question.) Professor Smith said: “The exact determination of the Canon of Scripture [list of inspired books] was never a burning issue until after the Reformation.... It was only when Luther denied the authority of the Church and appealed to the Word of God alone that there was felt to be any pressing need for defining the exact list of authoritative books.” Before Luther, of course, people accepted the teaching of the Catholic Church. But once he and his associates rejected the Church’s authority and tried to appeal to Scripture alone, it became necessary to ask which books are inspired. Professor Smith then explains how Luther worked. “Luther proposed a practical test.... The distinction which he actually had in mind was between those writings which have the power to bring to men the assurance of forgiveness through Christ and those which have no such power.”  Luther believed in justification - getting right with God - by faith alone. Now, St. Paul does teach justification by faith, but the key question is: What did St. Paul mean by the word faith? Luther thought it meant the confidence that the merits of Christ have been applied to one’s personal account, or taking Christ as one’s personal Savior. From then on, so long as a man continued to believe that point, he would be saved.


Actually, as scholarly Protestants today admit, this is not what St. Paul meant by faith. St. Paul meant by faith a total adherence of a man to God, so that if God speaks a truth, he believes; if God makes a promise, he is confident God will fulfill it; if God commands, he obeys. In this sense, the standard Protestant reference book Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, in its article “faith” in the latest supplementary volume (1976), says: “Paul uses pistis/pisteuein [Greek for “faith/believe] to mean, above all, belief in the Christ kerygma “preaching, proclamation], knowledge, obedience, trust in the Lord Jesus. It comes by hearing with faith the gospel message ... by responding with a confession about Christ ... and by the ‘obedience of faith’ ... ‘the obedience which faith is.”’ 


Luther thought a book that intensely preaches this doctrine was inspired, otherwise not. Of course, he never provided proof for such a standard. Nor could it be a standard, for Luther, or any good writer, could compose a book that would preach according to Luther’s requirements; yet that book need not on that account be inspired. 


So Luther’s attempt failed. Professor Smith adds that Luther “never applied this test minutely or critically.” Such an application really could not be made. 


John Calvin, in his Institutes, book 1, chapter vii, as cited by Professor Smith, offers a different test: “The word will never gain credit [belief] in the hearts of men till it be confirmed by the internal testimony of the Spirit....” But Calvin’s claim was too open to imagination and could never strictly prove anything. Smith’s comment is devastating: “The application of this test ... would eliminate the existing distinction between canonical and non-canonical [inspired and non-inspired] writings more completely than would the most radical conclusions of biblical criticism.” Smith goes on to point out parts of Scripture that do not seem very spiritually uplifting to us today.


At this point, Professor Smith is about ready to give up and admit that there is no way to determine which books are inspired. “What about other tests...?” he asks. “Can we, for example, say that the Bible is infallible, while other books are fallible? Nothing is more noticeable than the gradual disappearance of that word ‘infallible’ from present-day theologies.” And he goes on to point out what he considers errors in Scripture.


What Professor Smith demonstrates is that for a Protestant there simply is no way to know which books are inspired. That means, in practice, that a Protestant, if he is logical, should not appeal to Scripture to prove anything; he has no sure means of knowing which books are part of Scripture!


Smith’s article appeared in 1911. A much more recent Protestant attempt really ends up in a vicious circle. Gerhard Maier, in The End of the Historical-Critical Method, 1 writes, “only Scripture itself can say in a binding way what authority it claims and has.... We must let revelation determine its own limits. Consequently revelation defines itself.... Scripture considers itself as revelation” (pp. 61 and 63). In other words, inspired Scripture is inspired because inspired Scripture says it is inspired Scripture.


There is really only one way to accomplish what we are asking for: let the Church decide which books are inspired. Professor Smith dismisses that approach as one that holds only if one believes in the authority of the Catholic Church. Of course, he did not.


Let us pursue this method, taking great pains lest we, too, find ourselves in the vicious circle of proving the authority of the Church by inspired Scripture, and proving the inspiration of Scripture by the Church.


Let us use the method of looking upon the Gospels, not as inspired books, but simply as documents from ancient times, works on a par with those of writers such as Caesar, Tacitus, Thucydides, and others.


First, with the help of the science of textual criticism, we check to see if our copies are at least substantially the same as the originals. This is needed since our oldest manuscripts are separated from the originals by about three centuries. But that is no great problem. There is a gap of nine hundred to a thousand years between Caesar’s original and our earliest manuscripts. Further, we can partly bridge the gap in the case of the Gospels by using translations that go back to within about a hundred years of the originals. These translations were made Independently of each other, into several languages, in different parts of the Mediterranean world. Still further, the variants-differences in readings in different manuscripts-that we find are mostly trifling, and do not affect at all the six points that will be discussed shortly.


What literary pattern did the Gospel writers intend to use? It is clear that they intended to give facts about Jesus as a basis for faith. They had access to the facts, even if we take the latest dates proposed today for the first three Gospels 80-90 AD Many people in their sixties who had seen and heard Jesus himself would have been alive at that time. And Quadratus, an early apologist writing about 123 AD, tells us that in his day there were still persons around who had been cured or raised from the dead by Jesus-prime witnesses!2  The Gospel writers had the opportunity to get the facts. And we know that they would be careful and honest, for their own eternity depended on facts, not on fancy. As St. Paul told the Corinthians, “If Christ is not risen, your faith is vain” (1, 15:17). Or think of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was eaten alive by beasts in Rome in about 107 AD He wanted to be eaten, to be more like Christ! If anyone thinks that he was indulging in fantasies, let him take a copy of the letter of Ignatius to the Romans and stand by the lion cage in a zoo and read it!


We need to examine the first three Gospels, the Synoptics, for just six facts-facts that are not entangled with ancient cultural patterns, which would make it necessary for us to reconstruct those patterns. No, what we need are things the original onlookers could easily observe and accurately report.


FACT 1: There was a man called Jesus.


FACT 2: He claimed to be a messenger sent by God.


FACT 3: He did enough to prove that He was such a messenger.


Now the mere fact of working miracles would not prove that Jesus was a messenger sent from God. It is probable that God at times worked miracles even for good pagans. But Jesus often appealed to His miracles as proof of His mission and teaching (see, among these, Matthew 11:2-5, Luke 7:20-22, Mark 2:9-11). Now God is the ultimate source of the miraculous power; but He, being Truth, cannot provide such power as proof of a falsehood. So Jesus’ claims were proved true. In fact, He proved that He could even forgive sins. A most remarkable messenger!


Many of Jesus’ miracles could not be explained away as being the result of suggestion. No suggestion will multiply loaves and fishes or cure a man who was born blind. There is a hysterical kind of blindness that can come on later in life, which can be cured by suggestion. Nor would suggestion call out from the tomb a man dead for four days. And there have been many modern miracles, for example at Lourdes, that have been checked to the hilt by science. These miracles are in continuity with His miracles. Often they occur during the procession of the Blessed Sacrament, thus showing His Real Presence there. The Real Presence is proclaimed only by the Catholic Church, through continuity of ordination, going all the way back to Jesus Himself.


FACT 4: Crowds followed Christ. But He had an inner circle to whom He spoke more intimately. This is merely what we would expect.


FACT 5: He told His followers to continue His teaching.


FACT 6: Jesus gave the message that God would protect that teaching: “He who hears you hears me; he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16).


In summary then, we see a group that is commissioned to teach by a messenger sent by God, and promised God’s protection for that teaching. These observations are made without treating the Scriptures as inspired. Now we not only intellectually may but are intellectually driven to believe what the body teaches. That body can then assure us that those ancient documents, used without knowing they are inspired, really have God as their author. And that body, the Church, can also tell us that the messenger sent by God is really God Himself.  And, of course, it can guarantee countless other truths for us.  It is true, the Gospels seldom use the word church. But the reality is important, not the word. We have seen that there is a body commissioned to teach, and that is all we need.


We should add this: As we will see in chapters 20-23, many critics think there is a gap between what Jesus was (Jesus of history) and what the early Church said He was (Christ of faith). They say it is not possible to know much on the early side of that gap. We reply: First, they ignore the fact that information was available on Jesus, as we saw in the above sketch, and that getting the basic facts right was vital to the eternity of each one. Hence the assumption of neither care nor knowledge is false. Secondly, we have a bypass in the six facts we have just sketched. We need to establish only the above six points, all very simple and obvious. Then we can let that body, commissioned by God’s messenger, tell us all we need to know about who Jesus really was.

So now we can fulfill what the First Epistle of St. Peter asks of us (I Peter 3:15): “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.”



1 Translated by E. W. Leverenz and R. Norden, published by the major Lutheran house Concordia in 1977.

2 Eusebius, Church History, 4.3, 1.2.

Chapter 3: Multiple Authors


A problem arises from the special kinds of ideas people of the ancient Near East had about literary authorship. We today are very conscious of the rights of the author to his own work. No one would dare to change it and publish it under that author’s name. Not so in the ancient Near East. Someone later might make modifications, and still later, more and more modifications might be made-all leaving the name of the original author in place. Hence the question: Can this fit with the doctrine of inspiration? And if so, how?


It is often charged that the Pontifical Biblical Commission’ in its early decrees, was excessively restrictive and narrow. Not in this instance! The Commission was asked about this sort of point. The question was whether in the first five books of the Old Testament we absolutely must hold that Moses either wrote each and every thing with his own hand or dictated them to scribes. The Commission’s answer, given on June 27, 1906, was no.


The Commission also examined the theory that says “that the work, conceived by [Moses] under divine inspiration, was entrusted to another or to several to be written ... and that finally the work done in this way and approved by the same Moses as the leader and inspired author was published.” The Commission found this theory was permissible.


So it is not necessary to hold that Moses himself wrote all of the first five books.


He could have commissioned others to do the work, checking and approving it after they had finished. After all, the Pope today sometimes works in this way, assigning some writer to prepare a document for him according to his own instructions. Later the Pope will publish it as his own. He might not even find any need for revisions.


The Commission also raised this question: “Can it be admitted ... that in so long a course of ages, some modification happened to [the Pentateuch], such as additions after the death of Moses by an inspired author or glosses and explanations injected into the text, or that certain words and forms were changed from an ancient form of the language into more recent language; and that defective readings can be attributed to the hands of scribes, about which we may investigate and judge according to the norms of criticism?” The reply was: “Yes, subject to the judgment of the Church.”


There is all the latitude one might desire. In dealing with the specific case of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, it is legitimate to think that Moses had others do part of the work, subject to his approval. We may also say that long after his death some other inspired author changed things that Moses had written or approved. The final touches would, obviously, have to have been done by an inspired author.


The Pontifical Biblical Commission also admits that some later person, not necessarily inspired, might have updated the forms of the language. For every language, while it is living and spoken, changes. After some time persons who use that language may no longer understand easily some older expressions. That could have happened to the Pentateuch, and someone might later have put the same ideas into more current language.


Behind all of these questions, lies the belief that Moses is in some way the author of the Pentateuch. That view can still be honestly maintained today. A highly respected recent Scripture scholar, Eugene Maly, writing in Jerome Biblical Commentary, said: “Moses ... is at the heart of the Pentateuch and can, in accord with the common acceptance of the ancient period, correctly be called its author” (1, p.5, par.24). In speaking of the “common acceptance of the ancient period,” Father Maly has in mind precisely that, later on, persons often felt free to modify earlier writings while leaving the name of the original author on them.


So, in the case of many hands or authors, there could be several inspired authors; that is, each one who worked on a book could be inspired. But it is obviously also possible that in some cases only the final writer was inspired. In that case, one needs to approach the problem by way of literary genres to determine what to say about authors other than the final author. That approach will be explained in chapter 9.


But what about the sources that Moses might have used? The Pontifical Biblical Commission raised this question: “Can it be admitted, without prejudice to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, that Moses, in producing his work, used sources, that is, written documents or oral traditions, out of which, according to the special purpose he had in mind and under divine inspiration, he took some things and inserted them in his work word for word, or else substantially, while either enlarging or shortening them?” The answer was yes.


Behind this question lies the documentary theory of the Pentateuch. Really, the theory applies largely to the first four books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Deuteronomy is, to simplify a bit, still another source. For the first four books, it is usual to speak of three sources: J, for Yahwist; E, for Elohist; and P, for Priestly Code. It is customary to use the letter J to reflect the German spelling of Yahweh. Later hands, according to many scholars, modified the earlier work of Moses, utilizing these sources, some of which of course could stem from Moses himself or from different writers employed by him. J, the Yahwist, is so-called because of his fondness for using the word Yahweh for God, while the Elohist prefers Elohim. It is thought by many that the Yahwist furnished the outline and much of the content of those first four books. The Yahwist stresses events after the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) as the fulfillment of the promises God had made to these men. In a sense then, this could be called redemptive history.


The Elohist document is hard to separate from that of J, for both are early and primitive. E may have been a narrative from the Patriarchs to the generation that wandered in the Sinai Peninsula after receiving the Ten Commandments, while J is apt to use human terms-anthropomorphisms. For example, J speaks of God as angry and regretting that He had made man, or as coming down to see the tower of Babel. The Elohist is much less inclined to the use of anthropomorphisms. The third document, P, the Priestly Code, is noted for its concern for cultic things and religious laws. Thus the Book of Leviticus is entirely P.  Most scholars once agreed on the existence of these sources. Today that consensus has been seriously damaged, though very many do continue to hold the theory. Distinguished among those who do is Pope John Paul II, who in several of his many conferences on Genesis, speaks in a matter-of-fact way about these sources.1 In speaking as he does, the Pope was obviously not intending to impose this theory authoritatively on the whole Church. First, because it was only something he said in passing; second, because a question of authorship of books of Scripture is not a matter of revelation but of history. This is true even when the text of Scripture seems to identify an author. In that case, it should be recalled that the ancient concept of authorship differed from ours. Not only would later hands feel free to change things, but also a person might write a book using a pen name. And the pen name might be that of a famous personage. The Gospels of Mark and Luke, incidentally, are really by those men precisely because their names were not famous enough to tempt others to use them as pen names.


Impressive evidence against the documentary theory would appear if the claims of Giovanni Pettinato about discoveries in the buried City of Ebla can be substantiated. He claims that the divine names El and Yahweh were both known and used around 2500 BC, and that he has found a creation account at Ebla very similar to that of Genesis. At present, there is immense controversy over these matters. Ebla was discovered in 1974-1975, in Syria. Over fifteen thousand clay tablets were found there, dating to around 2500 BC


Another remarkable case against the theory comes from a computer study made at the Technion Institute in Israel. The twenty thousand words of Genesis, in Hebrew, were fed into a computer programmed to make a thorough linguistic analysis of words, phrases, and passages in the text. The project coordinator, Yehuda Radday, reached a controversial conclusion: “It is most probable that the Book of Genesis was written by one person” (Newsweek, September 28, 1981, p.59).


The debate is apt to rage for a long time before general agreement is reached. Meanwhile, we know that such a theory is possible, and that it will not conflict with the doctrine of inspiration, or even with Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.



1 See Pope John Paul II, Original Unity of Man and Woman, Catechesis on the Book of Genesis (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1981), the audiences of September 12, 1979, September 19, 1979, January 2, 1980.

Chapter 4: The Plural Senses of Scripture

As we saw, there can be more than one author of a book of Scripture. Can there be more than one literal sense of a scriptural passage? While we have no clear statement of the Church to guide us on this, it is quite possible according to very many scholars.


First, we need to clarify the expression “literal sense.” It is not a crude, fundamentalistic way of understanding that treats the ancient writer as if he were a twentieth century American—as if one were to say: “Genesis speaks of six days. That means six times twenty-four hours.” No, the literal sense is what the ancient writer really meant to convey. (More about such matters in chapter 9.)  To find what the ancient writer meant to convey, we must take into account differences of language. For example, our Lord tells us that we must hate our parents (Luke 14:26). Sadly, some cult leaders take this, unintelligently, as really meaning hate. Still more sadly, some, of their duped young followers are even pleased to carry that hatred out. The truth is that our Lord would have been speaking either Aramaic or Hebrew—more likely the former. In either language, the degrees of comparison were missing. Where in English one would say, “Love me more, and them less,” the Aramaic and Hebrew, lacking the right words, might say, “Love me and hate them.”


We must also take into account the genre of literature the writer intends to produce. One writes differently in poetry for example, than in prose.


There is also a typical sense, one in which there is what might be called a prophecy through actions instead of through words. For example, Isaac carrying the wood on which he was to be sacrificed is a forecast, a type, of Jesus carrying His cross. Since the existence of types depends on the will of God, we can be sure of that will only when a later part of Scripture tells us that about an earlier part, or when the Fathers or the Church tell us.


Sometimes scholars also speak of an accommodative sense. This is not really something intended by Scripture at all. It occurs when a speaker or writer applies the words of Scripture to something that they could fit but that was not intended by God or by the human author of Scripture.


There is no entirely clear statement by the Church on the possibility of more than one literal sense, which is called “fuller sense.” or, using a Latin phrase, sensus plenior. We have only one text from Pope Leo XIII: “Since the author is the Holy Spirit, many things come under the words which far surpass the keen power of human reason, that is, divine mysteries, and many other things contained along with these. This [happens] sometimes with a fuller and more hidden meaning than that which the letter, and the laws of interpretation, seem to indicate” (Providentissimus Deus, 1893).


Yet, if we reflect that the Holy Spirit is the principal author of Scripture, it becomes obvious that He could intend to convey more by the words than the human author may have realized. Yes, the human author is sometimes described as an instrument that the transcendence of God uses. Yet that relationship should not bar God from intending more if He should so will. That additional meaning can become clear with the help of later parts of Scripture, or with the help of the Church. Matthew 1:22-23 seems to be a case in point: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”’ St. Matthew is quoting Isaiah 7:14.


The text of Isaiah has been discussed much by scholars. They have asked: Who is the child’? What is the proper translation of almah here, which St. Matthew translates as “virgin”?


We first look at the setting. In 735 BC, Syria (Aram) and Israel (the northern kingdom) invaded the southern kingdom of Judah to force King Achaz to join a coalition against Assyria. They really wanted to depose Achaz and set up a king of their own choosing. Achaz was tempted to join Assyria instead. Isaiah met the king, told him he must not do that, that he must have faith. Isaiah promised him any sign he might ask for, but Achaz refused to ask. Isaiah was especially disturbed because to submit to Assyria would mean recognition of the gods of Assyria (see 2 Kings 16). Isaiah promised the sign of the child to be born of the almah. Most scholars today try to see this child as Hezekiah, son of Achaz. His birth would have been a sign within the lifetime of Achaz—an important point. The child would be a sign of one to continue the Davidic line. In favor of this view, it is pointed out that almah in Hebrew means simply “a young woman,” presumably unmarried. It does not mean “a virgin.” So the almah would be the wife of Achaz in this view.


But there are strong reasons for the view that the Holy Spirit, and perhaps also Isaiah, intended the virgin birth of Jesus. It is admitted that the child in Isaiah 7:14 is the same as the marvelous child of Isaiah 9:6 who is to be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.” Such a description hardly fits Hezekiah, even though he was a good king. Further, almah in the Hebrew text has the article the—which would be strange if it refers to the wife of Achaz. And again, that word is not very apt for a wife. Still further, the old Greek translation of the Old Testament, made in the third and second centuries BC, uses parthenos (“virgin”) for almah.


We can get some help, too, from the Targum on Isaiah 9:5-6. The Targums are ancient Aramaic translations, plus comments, of the Old Testament. Their date is uncertain. Some think the Targum Jonathan on the prophets very early, pre-Christian; others would make it later. Whatever its date, it gives us an ancient Jewish understanding of the text, an understanding not helped by the hindsight of seeing it fulfilled in Jesus.


Now the Targum on Isaiah 9:5-6 sees the child as the Messiah. The same Targum on Isaiah 7:14 does not speak of that verse as Messianic, yet since it is generally admitted that the child of 9:5 is the same as the child of 7:14, the Targum implicitly recognizes the child of 7:14 as the Messiah and, therefore, not as Hezekiah.


There are, then, powerful reasons for saying that the understanding given us by St. Matthew is not just an accommodative sense but a fuller sense. Or, we could consider it as an instance of multiple fulfillment of a prophecy.


This situation is similar to Matthew 2:15: “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son.”’ St. Matthew is making Hosea 11:1 refer to the return of the infant Jesus from Egypt. Yet, and St. Matthew would know it even better than we, Hosea 11:1 seems to speak of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt under Moses; the son is the whole people of Israel But again, we’ do not think St. Matthew meant this as a mere accommodative sense. It is a fuller sense or, alternatively, another case of multiple fulfillment of a prophecy. (These two possibilities often coincide.) 


Genesis 3:15 is much discussed. In it God, after the fall of Adam and Eve, says to the tempter serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.” Some wish to argue that the only woman on the scene is Eve. Yet this view cannot explain how there is a permanent enmity between Eve and the tempter, to whom she has just fallen. And that her offspring is to conquer the serpent is hardly true of the descendants of Eve in general.


Some would retort that the Hebrew shuf is used to mean both that the serpent will “strike at” her heel and that the offspring of the woman will “strike at” the serpent’s head. However, here again those three Targums help us. The ancient Targumists, knowing full well the meaning of the Hebrew, still not only made the verse Messianic but also saw in it a victory for the sons of the woman. The result is that we too can see a fuller sense in Genesis 3:15. It predicts the victory of the offspring of the woman. The woman is Mary; her offspring, Jesus. A note on this verse in the New American Bible seems to understand this interpretation as at least possible. Far more important, Pope Pius XII, in the Encyclical Fulgens Corona Gloriae (September 8, 1953), wrote: “The foundation [of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception] is seen in the very Sacred Scripture in which God... after the wretched fall of Adam, addressed the ... serpent in these words..., ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman.”’  Now if the Immaculate Conception can be found in Genesis 3:15, so can Mary, the Immaculate one.


There are, of course, many other instances of the fuller sense. The topic of our next chapter, multiple fulfillment, will provide instances that can be considered fuller sense at the same time. Let us round off this chapter with a fascinating case of what seems to be a fuller sense in a work of a Father of the Church, St. Irenaeus, the martyr-bishop of Lyons, who died around 200 AD In his work Against Heresies (3.22.4), St. Irenaeus brings out the parallel, in reverse, between Mary and the old Eve. Vatican II quotes it this way: “Rightly then do the Holy Fathers look on Mary as not just passively employed by God but as freely cooperating in faith and obedience in human salvation. For she, as St. Irenaeus says, ‘by obeying, became a cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race”’ (Constitution on the Church, par. 56).


Further on in the same section, St. Irenaeus adds this remarkable comparison: “For in no other way can that which is tied be untied, unless the very windings of the knot are gone through in reverse: so that the first joints are loosed through the second, and the second in turn free the first.... Thus then, the knot of the disobedience of Eve was untied through the obedience of Mary.”


Now St. Irenaeus, in context, seems to be thinking of Mary’s obedience on the day of the Annunciation. This was, of course, a cooperation in the Redemption. The Second Person of the Trinity could not die without a human nature. Mary, in furnishing that humanity, did share in the Redemption.


But did her cooperation cease there? Or did it extend even to taking part in the great sacrifice itself? The comparison of the knot implies that she shared even in Calvary; for it was only then, and not earlier, that the knot really was untied.

Did St. Irenaeus see all the implications of his own words? If he did, he did not show it. But Vatican 11, as we saw, quoted St. Irenaeus, adding: “In suffering with Him as He died on the cross, she cooperated in the work of the Savior, in an altogether singular way, by obedience, faith, hope, and burning love, to restore


supernatural life to souls. As a result, she is our Mother in the order of grace” (par. 61).


St. Irenaeus probably did not see the full implication. Yet he. a Father of the Church, was an instrument in the hand of Divine Providence. That same Divine Providence led Vatican II to see what St. Irenaeus had not seen in his own words.


Similarly, the human writers of Scripture may not have seen all that the Holy Spirit intended through their words. The Church later would see these things.

Chapter 5: Multiple Fulfillment


A remarkable phenomenon appears in a number of places in Scripture. Oddly, it has been little noticed by scholars. It seems that prophecies can have more than one fulfillment.  Second Timothy 3 opens by saying: “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce....” And the dreadful litany continues. (Incidentally, the picture given here of the time just before the end is as opposite as it can be to the dreams of Teilhard de Chardin, who taught that just before the return of Christ, most of the world would be bound together in close love, and perhaps also telepathy. Compare also Luke 18:8, Matthew 24:12, and 2 Thessalonians 2:3.)


The Jerome Biblical Commentary, on that passage in 2 Timothy, observes: “In the last days: in the Messianic period, but with special emphasis here on the final days before the Parousia [the return of Christ at the end].” “The last days” has a double meaning: it refers to all the time between the Ascension and the return of Jesus, and also to the time just before that return. Notice that the whole time from Ascension to end is called “the last days.” The reason is that we are now in the final period of God’s dealings with men. There is to be no other arrangement or regime to supplant Christianity. (On this, compare Vatican II, Constitution on Divine Revelation, par. 4.) This helps us understand some otherwise puzzling words in Scripture, in which we are told that the time is short (including I Corinthians 7:29, Revelation 1:3, and 2 Peter 3:8, wherein we read that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”).


Another fascinating instance is found in the prophet Daniel 12:7. The man clothed in linen who has appeared to Daniel raises his right hand and his left to the sky and swears by Him who lives forever “that it would be for a time, two times, and half a time; and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end all these things would be accomplished.” A note in the New American Bible on Daniel 12:7 explains the three and a half years as either a symbol of evil (half of seven, the perfect number) or as the total approximate duration of the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria. “The author’s perspective,” the note adds, “is the end of Antiochus, and beyond, the final consummation of all things.” Again it is shown that a prophecy may have more than one fulfillment.


Incidentally, the translation of the words of Daniel 12:7 saying that the things will happen “when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end” is much debated. Some commentators have even gone so far as to suggest that we are here dealing with a mistranslation into Hebrew from an Aramaic original (see Anchor Bible, p. 274). In the next verse, Daniel 12:8, Daniel himself is also puzzled: “I heard, but I did not understand.” Most scholars seem not to have noted another possible translation of the Hebrew ukekalloth in verse 7. The expression would then read that these things will happen—in the final fulfillment of the prophecy—“when He has brought to an end (completed) the scattering of the power of the holy people.” This could conceivably refer to the final reunion of the scattered Israelites from the dispersion.


The interpretations of St. Matthew’s Gospel of Isaiah 7:14 and Hosea 11:1, which we offered as probable instances of a fuller or multiple literal sense, can also, obviously, be taken as instances of multiple fulfillment of prophecies.

A specially interesting probable case of multiple fulfillment comes in the mysterious chapter 24 of St. Matthew. At the start, the disciples ask Jesus for the signs of two things: the fall of Jerusalem, and of the end of the world.


Commentators are far from agreement on interpreting the rest of the chapter.  Some have tried to divide it so as to have some parts refer to one question, others to the other. But a careful analysis reveals that practically all of the signs given were actually fulfilled before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.


Jesus first warns: “For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.” There were false Messiahs before 70 AD. The Acts of the Apostles 5:36-37 tells of revolts led by self-proclaimed Messiahs named Theudas and Judas of Galilee. (There is a problem as to the dates of these Messiahs. Judas seems to belong to 6-7 AD, but his followers were probably active long after that. Gamaliel is represented in Acts as saying that Theudas was recent, that is, in the 30s, while Josephus, a later Jewish historian, places Theudas in the 40s. But Josephus is not always accurate, and Luke may be using the Greek genre of speeches within history. (See chapter 9.) Acts 21:38 speaks of another such leader from Egypt without giving his name.


Of course there will be false Messiahs before the end: the great Antichrist himself, and lesser figures claiming to be Christ.  Jesus continued: “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars.... There will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the sufferings.”  There were many wars before 70 AD Besides the smaller struggles over false Messiahs, there was the great Jewish revolt that began in 66 AD Further, in 69 AD the Roman empire suffered, after the fall of Nero, from what is called the year of the four emperors: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian. The first three held power only for a few months each. There were famines in the time of Emperor Claudius, who ruled from 41-54 AD The Acts of the Apostles 11:28 says that a prophet, Agabus, predicted a severe famine.


There were pestilences too. The Roman historian Tacitus, in Annals 16:13, says of the year 65 AD: “A year of shame and of so many evil deeds, heaven also marked by storms and pestilence. Campania was devastated by a hurricane, which destroyed everywhere country houses, plantations and crops, and carried its rage to the neighborhood of Rome, where a dreadful plague was sweeping away all classes of human beings ... the houses were filled with lifeless bodies, and the streets with funerals. No age or sex was spared. Slaves and freeborn were cut off alike .... Knights and senators died indiscriminately.”

Tacitus also reports many earthquakes in various places in the empire: in the province of Asia in 53 AD (Annals 12:58), frequent shocks in Rome itself in 51 AD (Annals 12:43), in Campania and especially Pompeii in 62 AD (Annals 15:22). The Roman philosopher Seneca and the Jewish historian Josephus also report earthquakes.


Jesus also foretold persecutions: “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another” (Matthew 24:9-10).


There is no need to cite the documentation for persecutions before 70 AD The facts are too well known. The Second Epistle to Timothy adds: “Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (3:12). Before the final end, “Also it [the Beast, the Antichrist] causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead’ so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast, or the number of its name” (Revelation 13: 16; 17).


The next words of Jesus in Matthew are frightening: “And because wickedness is multiplied most men’s love will grow cold” (24:12). None of the usual translations really brings out fully the complete force of the Greek for the first words of this line, for English does not have the needed structure. Freely, it means: “Because sin will go the limit, the love of most people will grow cold.” (What a contrast to the dream of Teilhard de Chardin!)


We think too of the terrible warning given by Jesus in Luke: “When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (18:8). We do not have a record of so great an apostasy before 70 AD But there was immense sin. Perhaps we should just say that the multiple fulfillment is not total in all details.


Matthew predicts that “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come” (24:14). The language is well adapted to multiple fulfillment, for the Gospel was indeed preached throughout most of the Mediterranean world before the fall of Jerusalem. St. Paul himself told the Romans (15:23) that he no longer had a place to preach in the eastern Mediterranean. Before the ultimate end, the Gospel will reach absolutely all parts of the globe.


A difficult line follows in the next verse of Matthew: “So when you see the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place ... then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (24:15).


Daniel referred to the desecration of the Temple in the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes (167-165 BC). The Roman Emperor Caligula, in 40 AD, ordered that a statue be placed in the Jerusalem Temple. It seems that his subordinates had the good judgment to ignore the command. However, as the earliest Church historian, Eusebius, tell us (Histories, 3.5), many Christians in Jerusalem did see something that led them to flee the city of Pella before the fall of Jerusalem. Did they merely see the course of events developing? Or did they actually see the eagles atop the standards of Roman soldiers in the outer temple area? The soldiers actually worshiped those eagles, so they were literally idols. “Immediately after the tribulation of those days,” Matthew warns, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven” (24:29-31).


We might say that these words apply only to the final end. Yet they seem to be an odd pattern of writing, called apocalyptic, that arose in Judaism around the second century BC and had a run of about four centuries. This kind of writing uses extremely colorful imagery, much stronger than a sober description would call for. Thus in Isaiah, referring to the fall of Babylon, we find: “Behold, the day of the Lord comes, cruel with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation .... For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light (13:9-10). (Compare Isaiah 34:4, on the fall of Edom, and Ezekiel 32:7-8, on the distress coming to Egypt.)  Finally, Jesus Himself warns us that the signs are not so clear that most people will read them: “As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man” (Matthew 24:37). People will be eating, drinking, marrying—business as usual. And suddenly it will be there, the visitation (the concept of the Hebrew paqad: God coming to “visit” for weal or woe). Hence St. Paul told the Thessalonians that the day would come “like a thief in the night” (1, 5:2-3; compare also 2 Peter 3:10 and Matthew 24:36-44). What of the words “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place” (Matthew 24:34)? These words came true most clearly in that many of the original hearers of Jesus were alive in 70 AD But the words can also refer to the final end. As Vatican II tells us, Christianity is the final stage of God’s dealings with man. It will not be supplanted by another regime. So the Christian dispensation, the Messianic Age, will not pass away before the end (On Divine Revelation, par. 4).  Interestingly, St. Augustine often makes use of the technique similar to our multiple-fulfillment idea in his great City of God. He studies minutely an Old Testament prophecy, such as that in 2 Samuel 7:8-16 or Psalm 72. Following a translation that matches the Vulgate. St. Augustine noted that the promise to David that his successor would build a Temple was not entirely fulfilled in


Solomon, since verse 16, as St. Augustine read it, said: “His house will be faithful.” But Solomon was not faithful; he fell into idolatry. So the prophecy, which partly fits Solomon, completely fits Christ. He and His house. the Church, will always be faithful, will last forever. (Other examples in St. Augustine’s City of God are 17:13 and 18:45.)


Finally the monks of Qumran, writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, seem to have had similar ideas, as can be seen in their pesher commentary on the prophet Habakkuk. They “update” the message to refer to their own community. 

Chapter 6: Inspiration and Inerrancy-General


Since God is the principal author of Holy Scripture, it follows that Scripture can contain absolutely no error of any kind.  Yet today there are numerous charges of error in Scripture, even from Catholics. They often begin by confusing the issue with terminology. They say that there are two ways of looking at the question, a priori, and a posteriori. If we look a priori, that is in advance of checking the text of Scripture, we say, “God is the author; therefore no error is possible.” But these people say, “Let us look a posterior), that is, let us consider the question after looking at the text.” When they do that, they say, in effect: “Look at all the errors we found in Scripture!  Since there are errors, of course there can be errors!”


A strong example of this new position is provided by Thomas A. Hoffman, SJ.1 As essential for the sacred character of Scripture, Hoffman requires that the writings be: “(1) inspired, that is originating from and communicating the Spirit of God; (2) in some sense normative for the community; and (3) canonical, having official and unique authoritative status.”  At first sight, Hoffman’s criteria seem to be in accord with the Church. But we need a closer look. As to inspiration, Hoffman says, “I maintain that what they meant was simply a writing in which they experienced the power. truth, etc., of the Spirit of Christ ....” But this is really subjective and does not at all imply freedom from error. Hence. Father Hoffman adds, “The term inerrancy is dropped in this paper as having no positive theological contribution to make.” Father Hoffman says this because he uses the a posteriori approach. He looks at the text and judges it to be so full of errors that to try to explain them away is “basically patching holes on a sinking ship.”


To try to defend Scripture against charges of error, Father Hoffman adds, shows a lack of faith. “What is at work here is a search for a security that is not only non-existent but incompatible with the total dependence upon the faith-covenant that is at the heart of Judeo-Christian religion, a kind of idolatry that gives a certitude that trespasses upon the true Christian faith-relationship with God.”


At first sight, these words may seem a strong expression of faith. Actually, they deprive faith of its basis. “Believe because you will to believe.” is what they are saying. Neither the Catholic Church nor Holy Scripture takes such an attitude.

Thus the First Epistle of St. Peter admonishes us: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you ...” (3:15).  As we saw in chapter 2, there is a solid, rational process that starts by regarding the Gospels merely as ancient documents and moves forward to prove the teaching commission of the Church, given to it by a Messenger sent by God, who has promised it His protection.


The situation becomes clearer when we compare the proposal of Father Hoffman to that of Rudolph Bultmann, father of “form criticism.”2 Bultmann’s contention is that faith cannot be logically proven. “The man who wishes to believe in God as his God,” says Bultmann, “must realize that he has nothing in his hand on which to base his faith. He is suspended in mid-air, and cannot demand a proof of the word which addresses him .... Security can be found only by abandoning all security.”


If Bultmann meant that we should first arrive at the divinity of Jesus, the Divine Word, and then without further question believe Him, that would be splendid. But he does not mean that at all. Thinking that we can know hardly anything with certitude about Jesus, Bultmann reinterprets the Gospels to make them mean the same as a bizarre modern German existentialist, Martin Heidegger.3 Bultmann says that his “demythologizing” of the New Testament (making it mean the same as Heidegger and removing the myths) is “in fact a perfect parallel to St. Paul’s and Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone .... It destroys every false security,” of trying to work to a rational preliminary to faith. Just as in justification by faith, we have no basis in works, so in faith we have no basis in rational preliminaries. Bultmann goes still further: “The old quest for visible security, the hankering after tangible realities ... is sin .... Faith means turning our backs on self and abandoning all security.”4


In short, the proposals of Father Hoffman and Bultmann remind us of the desire of the Danish existentialist Kierkegaard to make faith just “a leap.” We, as it were, jump up to Cloud 9, and believe because we decide to believe. We must not be prepared, as St. Peter wishes, to “have an answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope you have.” We are reminded-of St. Paul’s warning in 2 Corinthians 11:13-14: “Such men are false apostles. They practice deceit in their disguise as apostles of Christ. And little wonder! For even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.”


Raymond E. Brown speaks much like Father Hoffman. He writes: “If one has an a priori view of inerrancy that forbids a religious error, one will have to argue insistently that Job (14:13-22) did not mean what he seems to say.”5 Father Brown means that Job 14:13-22, denies the afterlife. Brown describes the efforts of those who seek to show Job did not do that as “an unmitigated disaster.” One almost wonders whether Father Brown has a sort of faith in reverse that assures him of the presence of error in Scripture. For, as we shall see, it is easily possible to answer this charge, which Brown considers his strongest case.


Before getting into the specifics, we should see on the positive side and in general what the Catholic Church teaches about inerrancy in Scripture. We already saw that Vatican Council I taught that the books of Scripture are sacred, not only because “they contain revelation without error, but because, since they were written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author.”


Now it is completely obvious that if God is the author, there can be no error. Pius XII, in his encyclical on Scripture, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), after quoting this statement of Vatican I, commented: “In our age, the Vatican Council, to reject false teachings about inspiration, declared that these same books [of Scripture] must be considered ‘as sacred and canonical’ by the Church, ‘not only because they contain revelation without error, but because, being written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and as such have been handed down to the Church.’”


“But then,” Pius XII adds, “when certain Catholic authors, contrary to this solemn definition of Catholic doctrine, in which authority of this kind is claimed which enjoys immunity from any error whatsoever, for these books ‘whole and entire, with all their parts’-when these authors had dared to restrict the truth of Holy Scripture to matters of faith and morals ... our Predecessor of Immortal memory, Leo XIII, in an encyclical, Providentissimus Deus.... rightly and properly refuted those errors....”


Some writers had said that matters of natural science or history, or things said in passing, are not protected by inerrancy. Only things pertaining to faith and morals, they said, are so protected. Pius XII pointed out the obvious: that if God is the author, there can be no error whatsoever, of any kind. And he spoke of the teaching of Vatican I on this point as “a solemn  definition.” Raymond Brown, however, insists there can be errors, even in religious matters! The next chapter will consider these charges.


Correct method is vital in studying any matter. Failure to use proper method in science resulted in such scant progress, mixed with manifold errors, until rather recent times. When scientists switched to the right method, the result was the splendid explosion of progress that has not yet subsided.


The point concerning method to be made here is this: one must distinguish the fact from the how. The fact that there is no error in Scripture, we know from the teachings of the Church. But how to explain certain difficulties requires additional work. However, and this is the vital point, even if we were not able at present to find the how that will solve particular problems, that should not blind us to the fact that there is an answer. We know infallibly that there is an answer, from the Church’s teaching that there is no error. Moreover, there can be no error whatsoever in Scripture, precisely because the principal author of Scripture is God Himself.


Today, thanks to new techniques in the study of Scripture, we can solve numerous problems that utterly baffled scholars even as recently as the early part of this century. These earlier scholars, both Catholic and Protestant, knew how to solve some problems in Scripture, but they were well aware they could not solve certain others. Yet because they were persons of excellent faith, they knew that every difficulty must have an answer, even if they couldn’t find it. 


Today, incomprehensibly, we have the reverse situation. Precisely at the time when new techniques enable us to do what seemed impossible before, so many scholars are not only not solving the problems but even saying that problems are insoluble whose answers have been known for a long time! For example, Joseph Fitzmeyer, SJ notes two seeming contradictions in the three accounts of the conversion of St. Paul, in Acts 9:3-19, 22:6-16, and 26:12-18.6


In one account of Paul’s conversion, his companions heard the voice that spoke to him; in another they did not. In one account, Paul’s companions were thrown to the ground; in the other, they stood amazed. Fitzmeyer says that “the variants may be due to the different sources of Luke’s information.” But these difficulties have been resolved for a long time. As to the question about hearing Vs not hearing, the explanation lies in the meaning of the Greek akouein, which signifies either to know that there is a sound or to understand what it says. A case of hearing a sound without knowing what it says is found in John 12:29, where a voice from the sky speaks to Jesus. He understands, but people in the crowd thought that they had heard thunder.


As to the second problem, if one is literally knocked off his feet by such an experience, he will in a moment scramble to his feet and then stand and look puzzled.



1 “Inspiration, Normativeness, Canonicity and the Unique Sacred Character of the Bible,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly (July 1981), pp. 447-469.

2 “Bultmann replies to his critics,” Kerygma and Myth, Vol. l, 2nd ea., ed.

Hans W. Bartsch, trans. Reginald H. Fuller (London: SPCK, 1964), p. 210.


3 Ibid. pp. 1 44, especially pp. 26-28.


4 Ibid. p. 19.


5 Raymond E. Brown, The Critical Meaning of the Bible (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), pp. 16-17.

6 Jerome Biblical Commentary, Vol. 11, 2nd ea., ed. R. E. Brown et al.

(New York: Prentice Hall, 1968), p. 218.


Chapter 7: Scriptural Inerrancy in Science and Religion


Inspiration rules out any sort of error in the Bible whatsoever. Thus Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus, wrote that since God is the author, “it follows that they who think any error is contained in the authentic passages of the Sacred Books surely either pervert the Catholic notion of divine inspiration, or make God Himself the source of error.” Note that Pope Leo said that one of two things happens: either they pervert the notion of inspiration, or they make God the author of error.


Charges of error refer primarily to three fields today, matters of science, of religion, or of history. We will take up each of these in detail, putting off the matters of history until after our chapter on literary genre.


In regard to matters of science, Raymond E. Brown wrote: “Already in 1893 Pope Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus ... excluded natural or scientific matters from biblical inerrancy, even if he did this through the expedient of insisting that statements made about nature according to ordinary appearances were not errors. (An example might involve the sun going around the earth.)”1  Here is what Leo XIII actually said: “We must first consider that the sacred writers or, more truly, ‘the Spirit of God, who spoke through them,’ did not will to teach these things (that is, the inner constitution of visible things) which were of no use for salvation, wherefore they at times described things . . as the common way of speaking at the time they did.” 


Brown, straining mightily, says that this is a “backdoor way” of admitting scientific error. We even today commonly speak of the sun as rising or setting, or as moving around the sky, when we know perfectly well that it is the earth that is moving. Who would say we are involved in habitual error on this account?


Far more serious is the fact that the same Raymond Brown charges that there are even religious errors in Scripture. “Critical investigation points to religious limitations and even errors. For instance, many recognize that Job 14: 13-22 and Sirach 14:16-17; 17:22-23; 38:21 deny an afterlife.”2 Brown tries to claim that Vatican II authorizes us to admit all sorts of error in Scripture, including religious errors.3 Scripture, he thinks, can be inerrant only on things needed for salvation.


Other religious teachings can be wrong. “Many of us,” Brown writes, “think that at Vatican II the Catholic Church ‘turned the corner’ in the inerrancy question by moving from a priori toward the a posteriori in the statement of Dei Verbum 11: ‘The Books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.’” (Emphasis added. Dei Verbum is the Vatican II Constitution on Divine Revelation.)


Brown focuses on the last clause he cited from Dei Verbum. He wants to consider that clause as restrictive instead of descriptive. If it were restrictive, it would mean that only things put into Scripture for the sake of salvation are inerrant, that there could be error in anything else. But if the clause is descriptive, it merely comments that Scripture is for the sake of salvation. What is true here?


First, Brown says, that the statement of Vatican II “is not without ambiguity.” Had the Council wanted to say what Brown wishes, it could have removed all ambiguity by the Latin construction qui ... quidem with the subjunctive.


But the decisive reason against Brown is his supposition that a General Council could teach heresy. For since Vatican I, according to Pius XII, gave a solemn definition that there is no error in all Scripture, if Vatican II were to say that there could be error, - religious error at that-we would have Vatican II teaching heresy by contradicting a solemn definition. And no matter on what level of teaching we think Vatican II was speaking here, it still remains that if it contradicted a solemn definition, it would be teaching heresy. Then the promises of Christ would he null and void. Finally, Vatican II itself added a note on this sentence. referring us to statements of the Council of Trent. Leo XIII. and Pius XII which reject the possibility absolutely of error in Scripture.

Raymond Brown thinks that he has found a clear example of error in Job 14:13-22 and in some passages of Sirach/Ecclesiasticus.


In Job 14:9-12 just before the lines in question. Job had said that although a tree may seem to die and then shoot up again, man when he falls does not return. Job is merely denying a return to life as we know it. He does seem to know of some sort of resurrection (probably not a glorious one such as we know from the New Testament), as will be seen presently in Job 19:25-27. He means that no one leaves the tomb and rejoins family and community.


In verse 13. Job says: “Oh that thou wouldest hide me in Sheol, that thou wouldest conceal me until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time and remember me! If a man die, shall he live again’?” Again. Job is denying a return to the present life. But after that. in high-flown poetry. Job is wishing fancifully, that God would let him hide alive in Sheol, the abode of the dead, until God’s anger would pass. Then Job might emerge again.


Job knows this is only a fancy, yet poets do indulge in fancy. So Marvin Pope in his Anchor Bible commentary on Job, says, “If only God would grant him asylum in the nether world, safe from the wrath that now besets him, and then appoint a time for a new and sympathetic hearing, he would be willing to wait, or even to endure the present evil” (p. 102). Such fancies occur not only in Job’s poetry; other places in Scripture provide similar thoughts. Marvin Pope adds: “Isaiah xxvi 20 calls ironically on the people of Judah to hide in their chambers till Yahweh’s wrath be past, and Amos ix 2 ff. pictures the wicked as trying vainly to hide in Sheol, heaven, Mount Carmel, the bottom of the sea.”


The text of Job continues the fancy he began in the previous lines: “All the days of my service I would wait, till my release should come. Thou wouldest call and I would answer thee; thou wouldest long for the work of thy hands.” Then Job adds more on the state he enjoys dreaming of: “For then thou wouldest number my steps, thou wouldest not keep watch over my sin; my transgression would be sealed up in a bag, and thou wouldest cover over my iniquity.”


Then Job pushes aside his fancy, knowing it is only a fancy: “But the mountain falls and crumbles away, and the rock is removed from its place; the waters wear away the stones; the torrents wash away the soil of the earth; so thou destroyest the hope of man. Thou prevailest for ever against him, and he passes; thou changes” his countenance and sendest him away.” Job is saying here that nothing can hold out against God. All go down into the grave and return no more to this life. 


While the father is in Sheol, “his sons come to honor, and he does not know it; they are brought low and he perceives it not.” Job is saying that when a man goes to Sheol he no longer knows what goes on upon the earth. Why? If a soul reaches the beatific vision, he will know all that pertains to him on earth. Without that vision, is there any means of knowing? Even today, we do not see any means, unless of course God chooses to reveal things to a soul in purgatory.


But-and this is of capital importance-conditions in the afterlife were radically different in the day of Job from what they are today. Why? Jesus had not yet died. Heaven, the vision of God, was not open, even to the just who had paid in full the debt of their sins. Theologians commonly speak of this state as the Limbo of the Fathers.4


Job was quite right. In Sheol there is no knowledge of what goes on on earth.  Since there is no such knowledge, “he feels no pain for anything but his own body, makes no lament, save for his own life.” But those words do imply consciousness in Sheol.


Really, it would be strange if Job would have no knowledge of an afterlife. The Book of Job probably was composed between the seventh and fifth centuries BC Before that, in the eighth century, Isaiah 14:9-11 pictures the souls in Hades as taunting the fallen rulers of Babylon as they arrive. Isaiah 26:19 says: “Thy dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shades thou wilt let it fall.”


The Jerome Biblical Commentary, of which Brown was an editor, has this to say of the above: “There is an explicit hope in the resurrection of individuals” (I, p.277). Of course, but not to the conditions of present life. Job denies a return to present conditions and he does not seem to know of a glorious resurrection. Isaiah does not hint at glory.


Jesus Himself refuted the Sadducees by pointing out that Sheol does not mean  annihilation. He reminded them that God had said to Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Then Jesus added: “He is not God of the dead, but of the living...” (Mark 12:26-27).


In fact, though the sense of the passage is debated, many think that Job (19:25-27) does look ahead to a resurrection, even if not the glorious kind we know: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth, and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God.” These lines cannot be taken to mean a rescue for Job in this life, for in 7:6-7 Job had given up on that: “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and come to their end without hope. Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good.”  It should be recalled that the Hebrews spent centuries in Egypt, where there was a well-developed idea of the afterlife. Afterward they lived in Canaan among a people who also had such ideas. How could they fail to have an idea of an afterlife? 


Raymond Brown also thinks there is a denial of an afterlife in Sirach, also called Ecclesiasticus. In 14:16-17 we read: “Give, and take and beguile yourself, because in Hades one cannot look for luxury.” We already know the answer. The afterlife before the death of Christ was the dull Limbo of the Fathers, where they waited to enter the vision of God.


Unfortunately, not all versions use the same numberings for the verses of our next passage. What Brown calls Sirach 17:22-23 is 17:27-28 in the Revised Standard Version: “Who will sing praises to the Most High in Hades, as do those who are alive and give thanks? From the dead, as from one who does not exist, thanksgiving has ceased.” M. Dahood, in Anchor Bible commentary on Psalms 6:6 (6:5 in Revised Standard Version), has a similar thought: “The psalmist suffers not because of the inability to remember Yahweh in Sheol, but from being unable to share in the praise of Yahweh which characterizes Israel’s worship.”  Israelites loved the grand liturgical praises of God, but there is no such thing in the dull Limbo of the Fathers. Isaiah 38:18 has a similar thought: “For Sheol cannot thank thee, death cannot praise thee.” The Hebrew for extol there is hallel, the same word that is used in I Chronicles 16:4 and 2 Chronicles 5:13, 31:2, for the liturgical praise of God.


Raymond Brown also appeals to Sirach/Ecclesiasticus 38:21: “Do not forget, there is no coming back; you do the dead no good, and injure yourself.” There is no “coming back,” again, means that there is no return to the present form of life. So this verse, too, is no real problem and does not at all prove an error in Scripture.



1 Brown, op. cit. p. 15.


2 Ibid. p. 16.


3 Ibid. p. 18.


4 The early Fathers of the Church refer to it many times, e.g., Shepherd of Hermas, Parable 9.16.5; St. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 72; St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.20.4; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6.6; St.  Athanasius, Ad Epictus 6; Origen, On Romans 5.1, and many, many more. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that in his Summa, Suppl. 69.7c.

Chapter 8: Charges of Religious Errors


Chapter 7 answered the strongest charges of religious error in Scripture proposed by R. E. Brown. There are other such charges. This chapter will discuss some major ones.


Let us turn to Ecclesiastes, also called Qoheleth, a book probably written around the third century BC In the opening line, the author calls himself “son of David, king in Jerusalem.” However, just as we today sometimes use pen names, so did they, except that they were inclined to pick the name of a famous person. This book does mark an advance in the ideas of retribution, according to some commentators. But it presents special problems that need a special method to solve.


In divine matters, it is not strange to encounter two truths that seem to conflict. We should, of course, check to see if we have understood correctly. If we have, we need to be careful not to deny or force either of the truths. Everyone admits this point when it is stated in a general way; but when it comes to particular cases too often it is forgotten.


Qoheleth is very faithful to this method. He knew that the good may suffer in this life, while the wicked may prosper; though at times both fare the same. He does not seem to have known clearly. at least the truth of retribution, reward and punishment in the future life, though we admit that careful study of Qoheleth could lead to either conclusion on this point.


The result is that we find two sets of statements in Qoheleth. They are so different that some commentators, chiefly in the past, thought that the book must have had two authors.


The texts that seem not to know of future retribution include 2:14: “The wise man has eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness; and yet I perceived that one fate comes to all of them.”


A similar idea is found in 3:19-21: “For the fate of the sons of men and fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity. All go to the same place; all are from the dust and all turn to dust again Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?”


Qoheleth writes that all turn to dust, man and beast alike, with no apparent difference. Yet there may be a hint here of something further for man: “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward?” The translation here is debated.  Instead of spirit, the New American Bible renders it “life-breath.”


An even stronger-sounding text is 9:5-6: “For the living know that they will die but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward: but the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more for ever any share in all that is done under the sun.” The dead are in the Limbo of the Fathers.  But none of these texts really denies an afterlife. They are to be balanced by those of the second series.  Chapter 3:17 says, “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked.” But Qoheleth knows that justice is not always accomplished in this life. So there seems to be an implication that the next life will make it right. Similarly, 8:12-14 says: “Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know it will be well with those who fear God.... There is a vanity which takes place on earth. that there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous.” The author could easily mean that things must be rectified in another life.


The same implication appears in 12:13-14: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the w hole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”


In 9:10 we get again the drab image of the Limbo of the Fathers: “Whatever our hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.”


We can easily see that Qoheleth faithfully reported both truths without seeing clearly how to reconcile them. Yet, objectively, everything he said was true if properly understood.


A very different kind of claim of error in Scripture comes again from R. E. Brown, who thinks there is a contradiction between the picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary given in Mark and that given in Luke. Luke clearly, especially in the Annunciation scene, presents Mary as completely devoted to her Son. But Mark, according to Brown, gives a different picture, in which she did not even believe in Him! In Critical Meaning of the Bible, Brown writes: “Luke’s picture of Mary as the first Christian ... finds little support in the Marcan judgment that Mary did not understand Jesus” (p.42). And again, speaking of Mark 3:21 and 3:31, Brown claims “that the sequence indicates that Mark judged that Jesus’ mother was among ‘his own’ and that she thought he was beside himself-scarcely a graceful picture of Mary.”


To follow this, we must review the two scenes, Mark 3:21 and 3:31. In 3:20-21, we read: “Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. And when his friends heard it, they went out to seize him, for they said, ‘He is beside himself.’” We notice the mention of his friends. Brown thinks Mary was among them and further, that it is the same group of people, including her, who appear ten verses later, in 3:31: “And his mother and his brethren came; and standing outside they sent to him and called him.” He replied in 3:33-35: “Who are my mother and my brethren? ... Whoever does the will of God is my  brother, and sister, and mother.”


Now it is admitted that each Evangelist wrote from his own perspective. But Brown thinks that they can contradict themselves- quite a different thing. Of course they cannot, simply because all parts of Scripture have the same principal author, the Holy Spirit, who does not contradict Himself. Brown even goes so far as to think that Mark could not have known of the virginal conception: “The way that Matthew and Luke excise the Marcan statements, is the best proof ... that Mark’s attitude toward Mary is irreconcilable with a knowledge of the virginal  conception.1 (The Marcan statements Brown refers to are the ones given above and Mark 6:4, where Jesus says, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”)


But as even Brown admits,2 “Mark may well have joined two once-separate scenes,” in 3:21 and 31. Further, the words “his relatives” in 3:21, are quite vague in the Greek, which has hoi par’ autou meaning “those around him,” who could be friends, relatives, members of the household. So we are not sure that Mary was in the group. And if she was she might well have gone along to try to restrain more distant relatives who did not believe in Jesus, a thing quite normal for a mother. Even rather ordinary mothers are quite apt to stand up for a son even when everyone else thinks him guilty.


Still further-as Brown admits by saying there may be two originally separate scenes in verses 21 and 31-there is no proof at all that it is the same group on the two scenes. Similarly, when Jesus speaks in 6:4 of a prophet as without honor even among his own, He would not have to mean His mother too. It would be true enough with lesser relatives.


The fact that He asked, “Who is my mother ...?” was merely a dramatic way of saying that of two kinds of relationships, through physical kinship and through faith, the second was the greater. Of course. Mary was greatest in both categories, as Vatican II pointed out: “In the course of her Son’s preaching she received the words whereby, In extolling a kingdom beyond the calculations and bonds of flesh and blood. He declared blessed those who heard and kept the word of God, as she was faithfully doing (cf. Mk. 3:35)” (Constitution on the Church par. 58).  Vatican II strongly taught Mary’s total dedication to Jesus from the very start: “The Father of mercies willed that the acceptance by the planned-for-mother should precede the Incarnation, so that thus, just as a woman contributed to death, so also a woman should contribute to life.... And so Mary, the daughter of Adam, by consenting to the divine word, became the Mother of Jesus, and embracing the salvific will of God with full heart, held back by no sin, totally dedicated herself to the person and work of her Son, by the grace of Almighty God, serving the mystery of the redemption with Him and under Him”(par. 56).


So, clearly, she could not have failed to believe in Him as Brown thinks St. Mark said. From the very fact that He would “reign over the House of Jacob for ever,” she would know that He was the Messiah for Jews then commonly expected the Messiah to live forever. Further as we shall see later, she had excellent reason to learn even His divinity from the message of Gabriel. Raymond Brown claims other contradictions: “Because of political overuse, a word of the Lord to Isaiah is well known: ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks’ (Isaiah 2:4). Less familiar is the contradictory word that the Lord speaks to Joel: ‘Beat your ploughshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears’ (Joel 4:10; RSV 3:10).”3  We fear R. Brown did not do his homework. The two texts, Isaiah and Joel, speak of two different situations. Isaiah 2 is a highly poetic and idealized image of the kingdom of the Messiah. How idealized the image is, is clear from the further description in Isaiah 11:6-8: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.”


In contrast, Joel pictures God’s judgment on the nations. As a note in the New American Bible says, “Weapons are made in response to God’s summons to armies which he selects to repel forever the unlawful invaders from the land of this chosen people.”


Brown also charges more Scriptural errors: “There is a series of complaints by Jeremiah that ‘the word of the Lord’ that he (Jeremiah) has spoken does not come to pass (17:15-16) and that he has been deceived (15:18, 20:7,9).”4 Jeremiah really says: “Behold, they say to me, ‘Where is the word of the Lord? Let it come!’ I have not pressed thee to send evil, nor have I desired the day of disaster, thou knowest” (17:15-16). It is not Jeremiah who is charging that the threatened punishment has not come; it is his unbelieving countrymen. They are saying in effect: “Look, you have been threatening for some time now, but nothing happens!” But the punishment did finally come, showing that the word of the Lord was true.  Jeremiah is talking about his personal afflictions in 20:7-9. He had mistakenly thought that God had promised that he, Jeremiah, would be protected in his own person. But now Jeremiah has been scourged (20:2) and put in the stocks for the night. Jeremiah has misunderstood what God has said. It is the same with 15:18.


So the Scriptures remain true in spite of some unperceptive interpreters. There are other charges, but they too can be answered.



1 Brown, op. cit. p. 80, n. 16.


2 Ibid. p. 79.


3 Ibid. p. 9.


4 Ibid. p. 9.

Chapter 9: Cardinal Koenig on Error in Scripture


An astounding thing happened at Vatican II on October 2, 1964. Cardinal Koenig of Vienna arose and charged that there were errors in matters of science and history in Scripture. Several other bishops supported him. In fact, at first, no opposition was expressed. But then a group of bishops appealed to Pope Paul VI. The final outcome was a statement in the Constitution on Divine Revelation (par. 11 ) disagreeing with Cardinal Koenig.1


Before stating the specific claims made by Cardinal Koenig and answering them, we need to explain the approach to Scripture by way of literary genres.  The word genre is taken from French (in English one sometimes meets the German Gattung instead). It means a literary pattern of writing. Take, for example, a modern historical novel about our Civil War. We, being natives of this culture, expect such a book to be a mixture of history and fiction. It is history in that the main line of the story is true to history and the background descriptions fit the period. We may read of steam trains and telegraphs, but not of radio, TV or planes. On the other hand, there will be fictional fill-ins, especially word-for-word conversations between, for example, Lincoln and Grant. We expect, we even want, the author to create these fill-ins to make the story fuller and more realistic.


But we do not suppose that the author really states word for word, what these important men said. We can’t even be sure that he has the substance.


The key word to notice here is assert. What does the writer mean to assert? He means to assert that the main line is history, that the background fits the period.


But he surely does not assert that he has reported actual conversations word for word, or even their substance. So he asserts some things; other things he does not assert. The modern historical novel is a blend of history and fiction. That fact does not lead anyone to say the author is trying to deceive us or is ignorant. No, both the author and the readers know what is asserted.


This example is a specially clear one. Actually, in English we have many other genres, or literary patterns. Each of these has, as it were, rules for understanding it. Most of our genres were inherited from Greece and Rome. So long as we do our reading within that great Greek and Roman culture stream, we are able to make our adjustments of understanding-as it were, to set the dials in our head-automatically. But someone from a different culture would have to learn to make those adjustments, to learn what is or is not asserted in each genre.


Now it is obvious that Scripture belongs to a very different culture stream from ours, the ancient Semitic. Can we just assume that the ancient Semites used the same genres as we do? Of course not. That would be foolish. In fact, we would not even be faithful to Scripture if we treated it as if it had been written by a modern American. We would not be trying to find out what the ancient inspired author really meant to assert. Instead, we would be imposing our own ideas on his words. To do that is called Fundamentalism. Fundamentalists ignore genre, acting instead as if Scripture had been written by a modern American. For example, they will say that since Genesis says God made the world in six days, that means it was done in six times twenty-four hours.


Before reading any book of Scripture, we need to determine the genre being used. The genre may even vary within a biblical book. Pius XII put it this way in his great encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943): “What is the literal sense in the words and writings of the ancient oriental authors is often not so obvious as with writers of our time. For what they meant to signify by their words is not determined only by the laws of grammar and philology, nor only by the context; it is altogether necessary that the interpreter mentally return, as it were, to those remote ages of the East, so that, being rightly helped by ... history, archeology, ethnology, and other fields of knowledge, he may discern ... what literary genres ... those writers of the ancient time wished to employ and actually employed.”  Vatican II put it this way: “Since all that the inspired authors or sacred writers assert should be regarded as asserted by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly faithfully, and without error teach the truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to be confided to Sacred Scripture” (Constitution on Divine Revelation, par. 11; emphases added).


This approach, through an understanding of genres, permits us to solve numerous problems that once were considered insoluble, including those raised by Cardinal Koenig. In fact, the sentence quoted above was Vatican II’s answer to Cardinal Koenig. And it was to this sentence that the Council added a note referring us to earlier texts of the magisterium insisting that there is and can be no error of any kind in Scripture.


Before going ahead, let us answer a claim by R. Brown on the attitude of the Church toward literary genres and some related matters. Brown said that “Pope Pius XII made an undeniable about-face in attitude toward biblical criticism. The encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) instructed Catholic scholars to use the methods of a scientific approach to the Bible that had hitherto been forbidden to them....”2 Brown meant chiefly the use of the literary genre approach.


Was that approach really once forbidden? On June 23, 1905, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which Brown thinks was the agent of restriction, published this question and reply: “Can it be accepted as a principle of sound interpretation if we say that some books of Scripture that are considered as historical-partly or totally-do not,, at times, give history strictly and objectively so called, but instead have just the appearance of history, so as to convey something other than a strict literal or historical sense of the words?” The reply was: “No, except however in the case-not easily or rashly to be admitted-in which, when the sense of the Church does not oppose it and subject to the judgment of the Church, it is proved by solid arguments that the sacred writer did not intend to hand down history strictly and properly truly so called, but, under the appearance and form of history, gave a parable, an allegory, or a sense differing from the properly literal or historical sense of the words.”


The reply is carefully qualified. It deals only with writings that at first sight seem to be history, not with other genres. Can things that look like history ever be taken otherwise? They can be if there are solid proofs that the book or passage is really a different genre. We may admit that subject to the judgment of the Church.  This is not really so different from what Pius XII said in Divino Afflante Spiritu: “What these [genres] are, the scholar cannot decide in advance. but only after a careful investigation of the literature of the ancient Near East.” Just a few years later, in 1950, when Pius XII saw that many scholars were getting too loose, he wrote in Humani Generis: We must specially deplore a certain excessively free way of interpreting the historical books of the Old Testament.... The first eleven chapters of Genesis, even though they do not fully match the pattern of historical composition used by the great Greek and Latin writers of history, or by modern historians, yet in a certain true sense-which needs further investigation by scholars-they do pertain to the genre of history.” (How they pertain to history will be considered in chapter 11).


Further. the Biblical Commission warned that we must heed “the sense of the Church.” Pius XII said the same thing in Divino Afflante Spiritu: “Let Scripture scholars, mindful of the fact that there is here question of a divinely inspired word whose care and interpretation is entrusted by God Himself to the Church-let them not less carefully take into account the explanations and declarations of the magisterium of the Church, and likewise the explanations given by the Holy Fathers [of the first centuries], and also the analogy of faith as Leo XIII ... wisely noted.” The expression “analogy of faith” means the entire structure of the teachings of the Church. No interpretation can clash with it, even by implication.


If it does, the interpretation is false. Pius XII was somewhat more encouraging about the genre approach than was the Biblical Commission, but there was no substantial or doctrinal difference between them.


Turning to the claims of error made by Cardinal Koenig, it is good to note that floor speeches at a Council do not enjoy the providential protection promised by Christ. That protection applies only to the final statements of the Council.


Actually, at the very first General Council at Nicea, in 325 AD, several bishops denied the divinity of Christ! The report of the speech of Cardinal Koenig says: “In Daniel 1 :1 we read that King Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem in the third year of King Jehoiakim, i.e., 607 BC, but from the authentic chronicle of King Nebuchadnezzar that has been discovered, we know that the siege can only have taken place three years later.”3 The introductory page in the  Jerusalem Bible edition of the Book of Daniel notes that “the historical setting of the story undoubtedly disregards known facts, persons and dates and contains anachronisms in detail...  The approach via literary genres, however, solves the problems easily. We must first determine the literary genre of the narrative parts of the book of Daniel (other parts, the visions, belong to the apocalyptic genre).


It has been established by research (see the Anchor Bible commentary on Daniel, pp. 46-71 ) that in both Jewish writing and in pagan texts there was in existence, by the time of the Book of Daniel, a genre called “the edifying narrative.” The story might or might not have a basis in fact. Even if it did, it was handled very freely. Its relationship to strict hagiography would be much like the relationship of science fiction to science. The original readers recognized it for what it was, yet they found that it gave them a sort of spiritual lift. It is to this genre that the narrative parts of Daniel belong. It is idle, therefore, to charge them with historical error. The author simply did not mean to assert that he was writing history. He was not. He was writing a different genre, the edifying narrative. So the “problem” Cardinal Koenig thought insoluble turns out to be no problem at all. 


Cardinal Koenig gave two other alleged instances of errors in Scripture. Although these “errors” do not need the genre approach for solution, it is convenient to look at them here.  According to Mark 2:26, David entered the house of God under the high priest Abiathar, said Cardinal Koenig. But really, according to 1 Samuel 21:1ff, it was not under Abiathar but under his father, Ahimelech.


The answer is easily found with the help of Greek grammar. The Greek text here has epi Abiathar archiereos. Now Greek epi followed by a genitive of the person can readily have a generic time meaning, i.e., “in the days of,” according to a standard reference work, Greek Grammar for Colleges, by H. W. Smyth, par. 1689. Smyth gives as an example, Thucydides 7:86, ep’ emou, meaning “in my time.” So the expression in Mark 2:26 really means “in the time of Abiathar” and not necessarily “when Abiathar was high priest.” Abiathar’s name was chosen to designate the period because he was better known to readers of the Old Testament than his father, Ahimelech, and because Abiathar was closely associated with King David.


In Matthew 27:9, we read that in the fate of Judas, a prophecy of Jeremiah was fulfilled. But, objected Cardinal Koenig, it was really Zechariah 11: 12f that was quoted.


Again, the answer is easy. A note in the not excessively conservative New American Bible on the passage in question, says that “Matthew’s free citation of Jer. 18,2f; 19,1f; 32,6-15 and Zec. 11,13 shows that he regards Judas’ death as a divine judgment.” Matthew was putting together passages from Jeremiah and Zechariah, chiefly Jeremiah 32:6-15 and Zechariah 11:13. As to the fact that Matthew puts the name Jeremiah on the combined text, it was a rabbinic practice to use the name of the best-known author in such combined texts.



1 We studied the passage in chapter 7 and saw that it rules out error. For the Cardinal’s words and later events, see A. Grillmeier, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Chapter III,” Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, Vol. III, ed. H. Vorgrimler (New York: Herder & Herder, 1969), pp. 204-215.

2 Raymond E. Brown, Biblical Reflections on Crisis Facing the Church (New York: Paulist Press, 1975), pp. 6-7.


3 Vorgrimler, op. cit. pp. 205-206.

Chapter 10 Pope Leo XIII on Principles of History


Some confusion arose from a remark of Leo XIII about the genre of history. One might wish that he had spoken more fully and clearly. However, we can, by careful study, find out what he did mean.


In his great Scripture encyclical Providentissimus Deus (1893), this Pope observed that the inspired writers sometimes wrote according to appearance in matters of science. Even today we also speak the same way, when for example, we say the sunrises or sets, or moves through the sky. Pope Leo says this in paragraph 121 (EB). Then in paragraph 122 he notes that while we must defend the truth of Scripture, this does not mean that we have to accept every proposal of individual Fathers of the Church, or of interpreters. They may have been affected by the view of their times about matters of science. He says that we must also distinguish various philosophical notions, which may be in the minds of these writers, from the solid truth of Scripture. Notions in both science and philosophy come and go. Things held as true today may be rejected tomorrow.  Right after these remarks, Pope Leo says that “it will help to transfer these things to other fields of knowledge, especially to history.” In the very next sentence, he adds that some have excessive confidence in ancient pagan records and are inclined to believe the pagan records instead of Scripture when the two seem to clash. What the Pope had in mind in suggesting we “transfer these things ... to history” is not as clear as we would like. As a result, Pope Benedict XV in his Scripture encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus (1920), felt the need to guard against a possible false interpretation of the words of Pope Leo. “Why should we refute at length,” wrote Benedict, “a thing clearly injurious to our predecessor, and false, and full of error? For what parallel is there between natural phenomena and history? Natural things deal with what appears to the senses ... but the chief law of history, on the contrary, is that the writings should really fit with what really happened. If we say that we could use a relative truth in historical matters in Scripture, how will that truth stand about the complete immunity from error which our Predecessor insisted on in Scripture?” So what Pope Leo says about history, did not apply “across the board” (Latin universe).


R. E. Brown, who is quite ready to charge errors of every kind to Scripture itself, is also ready, naturally, to charge error to Leo XIII. Brown wrote “Leo XIII stated,” ... “that the same principles ‘will apply to cognate sciences and especially to history,’ a concession that many thought opened the way to admitting that the biblical books were not necessarily historically accurate. Thirty years later Pope Benedict XV attempted to close this door in Spiritus Paraclitus when he stated that one could not apply universally to the historical portions of the Scriptures the principles that Leo XIII had laid down for scientific matters, namely, that the authors were writing only according to appearances.”1  Pope Leo XIII did not mean to admit error in Scripture. Brown insisted the Pope did so “by the backdoor” in saying that Scripture may speak of scientific matters according to common appearances. But when we consider the Pope’s remark in the framework of what we now know about genre, we see he was saying that the sacred writers did not assert that such things were accurate scientific knowledge. Further, Pope Leo insisted, as did Pope Benedict XV, on complete freedom from error in Scripture.


But there are two other things Pope Leo clearly meant, as is clear when we consider his words in context.


First, Pope Leo said in paragraph 122 that we need not accept every theory of science or philosophy; and in paragraph 123 he said that we need not accept every pagan record in preference to Scripture.


Actually, we know that many ancient kings did a lot of boasting in their records. In Egypt, some were even known to use victory monuments of earlier times, substituting their own names for the names of the earlier kings.


Second, as Pope Benedict XV keenly observed, the remark of Leo XIII about applying similar principles to history and-natural science- talking according to common appearances and usual ways of speaking-must not be taken across the board (universe) as if applying to every case. This implies two things: that there are cases in which seemingly historical things deal only in popularly expressed appearances; and that there are cases in which we must say instead that history does record facts as they really were.


We can find examples of each kind. Thus our Lord Himself and St. Paul, too, commonly spoke of King David as the author of all the psalms. They were following the usual way of speaking. St. Paul may not have known that all the psalms were not by David, but Jesus surely knew the truth. Yet it was quite right


for both to speak according to what was the usual appearance of the case. To use our  language of genre, they did not mean to assert that such was the strict truth about authorship.


Similarly, our Lord could compare Himself to Jonah. As we shall see, there is a large question about the historicity of Jonah. But Jesus did not intend to reveal that matter-it did not pertain at all to His purpose-and so He did not assert that Jonah was historical. He merely made use of common beliefs to illustrate a point.


One of us could quote a line from Alice in Wonderland to illustrate something without believing that charming fancy was historical.


Again, in John 8:33, some Jews tell Jesus that they are descendants of Abraham. Perhaps they really were. But many scholars today, considering the genre of Exodus to be something like epic, think that many elements of diverse origin were welded together into a people by Exodus and Sinai. Then not all would spring from Abraham. Exodus 12:38 says that when Israel left Egypt, “a mixed multitude also went up with them.” Again, the same situation (see also Numbers 11:4). By the time of Jesus, many had joined Judaism as proselytes. In spite of this, Jesus accepts the usual way of speaking and does not challenge their claim to be descendants of Abraham.


Did the inspired author of the Book of Jonah mean to write history or, instead, an extended parable to teach some important things? There is no doubt that the book, whether or not it is historical does teach some important points. But with the present state of the evidence and since the Church has given no decision, the answer must remain uncertain.


There is no great difficulty about the great fish that swallowed Jonah. God could by a miracle, have brought that about. In fact, some think He could have done it without much of a miracle, except for having the fish at the right place at the right time, and for having the fish disgorge Jonah at the right time and place.  Wallechninsky and Wallace2 tell us that in February 1891, after the ship Star of the East had caught an eighty-foot sperm whale, a seaman, James Bartley, was missing. After a search, he was presumed drowned. But the next day, when the crew was cutting up the fish, Bartley was found alive inside the whale.


But much of the problem centers on the things said concerning the city of Nineveh. Jonah 3:3 says that Nineveh was a large city. Some think that this word implies that Nineveh had fallen by the time the book was written (it fell in 612 BC). If we think, as some do, that Jonah wrote the book and that he belongs in the reign of Jeroboam II, King of Israel (perhaps 793-753), we have a problem.


(Second Kings 14:25 speaks of Jonah ben Amittai, the prophet, as being alive then.) But there is no need to hold that Jonah himself wrote the book. He might have had the experiences; another hand could have written them down later. The was on the other hand, could be just part of the vocabulary of storytelling.

More serious is the statement of Jonah 3:3: “Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth.” The ruins of Nineveh which have been found, do not show a city nearly that large. A. Parrot3 suggests that the name Nineveh could have referred to a twenty-six-mile string of settlements in the Assyrian triangle. Another view is that Jonah would likely speak at the city gates, where people gathered to converse. As there were many such gates to Nineveh, it would take three days to spend some time talking at each.


Again, in Jonah 4:11, God says that in Nineveh “there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left.” It is argued that the hundred and twenty thousand must have been babies, since they could not tell right from left. The objectors add that Deuteronomy 1:39 and Isaiah 7:15-16 use that expression to mean babies. That many babies would suppose a huge populace. A check of those two passages shows that the language is not the same; they speak of those who cannot know good from bad, or of learning to reject bad and choose good. The expression in Jonah then could mean that in the matter of religion the people of Nineveh simply do not know the ABCs.


Jonah 3:6 speaks of “the king of Nineveh.” That was not the usual expression among the Assyrians. The king was called king of Ashur. On the other hand, Jonah need not have adopted the expression of the Assyrians.


Some object that the Hebrew text of Jonah shows some words that were not in the language at the time of Jonah himself, for example, ta’ am (3:7), to mean “mandate.” There is also the late expression “God of Heaven” in 1:9. But this objection cannot prove anything because, as has already been noted, the Jews sometimes deliberately updated the language of their ancient texts to make them more readily intelligible.


A more serious objection is that at the time of Jeroboam II, when Jonah lived, Nineveh was not the residence of the king of Assyria. Nineveh became the capital much later, under Sennacherib (704-681). The only possible reply would be to suppose-a thing for which we lack evidence-that there was a lesser ruler in Nineveh who might be referred to as king. This is not really likely. Further, the omission of any statement of time could point to a parable rather than to history. The mention of Jonah by Jesus, as we saw above is inconclusive. He could merely have been making a literary allusion.


In all, then, the evidence against making the historicity of the Book of Jonah is not fully conclusive, though the problem of when Nineveh became the king’s residence is a very difficult one.


On the other hand, quite independently of the question of genre, it is easy to see that the chief purpose of the book was to teach two very important lessons, which are more important in themselves than the question of history.


First, in the minds of the Jews and other nearby peoples, the Assyrians were the world’s worst people. They went in for calculated terrorism in war. When they finally captured a city, they would cruelly kill many of the leading men to try to scare others out of resisting them. The Book of Jonah, nonetheless, shows God as concerned about the well-being of even the Assyrians (to love is to will or wish good to others for their sake). Now if God can love even the Assyrians, He must love everybody. This is a most important truth taught by the Book of Jonah.  The second truth, though hardly noticed by scholars, is of great importance.  Prophets who were sent to the chosen People of God, the Hebrews, invariably received harsh treatment if not death. But when a prophet comes to someone outside the People of God, even to the Assyrians, he is welcomed.


This point has a tremendous implication. Membership, full membership, in the People of God is a great privilege, very helpful for eternal salvation. Yet we know that salvation can be had even without it. though less safely. Thus Pius IX, in Quanto Conficiamur Moerore (August 10. 1863, DS 2866), said, “God, in his supreme goodness and clemency, by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault.”


One who keeps the moral law as he knows it, therefore will be saved. He needs a certain minimum faith, yes. But Pius IX indicates that in some way-he does not say how-that faith will be present if only the person keeps the moral law. Many primitives and pagans do that, as anthropology today shows. Similarly, Vatican II taught: “They who with no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but yet seek God with a sincere heart, and carry out His will, known through conscience, under the influence of grace, can attain eternal salvation” (Constitution on the Church, par. 16).


Given human frailty and the fact that it takes time for the Gospel to reach everywhere, it is inevitable that some will live their lives in a situation where it is unlikely they will attain full membership in the People of God, the Church. (We speak of “full membership,” since it seems that those pagans referred to by Pius IX, Pius XII, and Vatican II must have some degree of  membership.)


Hence there is a decision to be made by Divine Providence: how to assign people of all times and ages to positions in time and place where they will or will not be apt to attain that full membership. God, like a good Father, would seem to give more help to those who need more. In a normal family, a sickly child gets added attention. So God probably gives extra help where it is needed. In other words, those who are relatively more resistant to grace need more, so they get more; that is, God arranges things so that they get full membership with its added helps. Those who are less resistant can be saved with fewer external helps-Protestants who have only a few sacraments, or even pagans, who have no sacraments. (Perhaps, too, those who are so terribly resistant as to be lost no matter what position in time and place is assigned to them may be given the least positions, so as to decrease their responsibility, and to leave the best places open to those who will profit by them.)4


The idea that God acts this way seems to be implied also in Ezekiel 3:5-7, Luke 17:11-19, and in the parable of the Good Samaritan. So the Book of Jonah has two powerful lessons to teach. These are its chief purpose, rather than the assertion of the historicity of the narrative or the telling of stories as vehicles for

teaching.  Incidentally, the lack of any historical evidence for a conversion of Nineveh to Judaism by Jonah is a point against deciding this book to be in the historical genre.  Any Catholic reader who is not insulted by the second teaching we have seen in Jonah has not understood our reasoning!



1 Brown, op. cit. p. 15.

2 People’s Almanac (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975) p. 1339.

3 A. Parrot, Nineveh and the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1955), pp. 85-86.

4 See W. Most, New Answers to Old Questions (London: St. Paul Publications, 1971), pp. 88-112, especially pp. 106-108.


Continue to Part 2