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The Bible: The Catholic Scholars

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Some Protestants still believe that Roman Catholics do not read the Bible and subordinate Holy Scripture to an amorphous thing called “tradition”­revelation which is not found in Scripture but has come down from the Apostles through the teachings of the church. In fact, Roman Catholicism is in the midst of an astonishing Biblical revival, which has led to one of the most tempestuous internal fights the church has had in years. Last week, at the request of Pope John, the Pontifical Biblical Commission met in secret session at the Vatican Palace and agreed to resolve the quarrel by formulating new principles to guide Catholics in the scholarly study of Scripture.

The battle, now nearly a decade old, is between the progressive majority of Catholic Biblical scholars and a cadre of Roman theologians who follow the rigidly conservative views of the Holy Office. Both sides agree that the Bible cannot err. The theologians, concerned primarily with preserving doctrine from heresy, believe that the Bible should be analyzed with reverent caution, using at most the tools of grammar and philology to yield the meaning of words. Scholars believe that more is needed: the Bible, they say, is not history in the modern sense, but a collection of books whose meaning can only be unearthed after comparing it with other literatures, using archaeological discoveries to test its facts, and attempting to discover the purpose of its writers.

Both approaches have their dangers. Theologians tend to emphasize the divine inspiration and the factual truth of Scripture, and can fall into literalist absurdity —believing, for example, that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, even though Deuteronomy tells of his death. Scholars can be tempted to forget that the Bible is

God’s Word, and treat it as a puzzling mound of poetry. Yet at its best, scholarship not only clears up misinterpretation but strengthens belief. It has long since established, for example, that Isaiah was written by two, perhaps even three, writers who lived centuries apart—a conclusion that may have startled the faithful at first but now makes their understanding of the book all the easier.

Jerome v. Augustine. Scriptural critics have never had an easy time of it. In A.D. 403, St. Jerome was sharply criticized by St. Augustine of Hippo for introducing new phrasings into his Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate. A critical edition of the New Testament’s Greek text by the Renaissance Humanist Erasmus was put on Rome’s Index of Forbidden Books. With ecclesiastical approval, French police destroyed the scholarly writings of Father Richard Simon, the 17th century’s best Biblical critic.

In 1893 Pope Leo XIII cautiously encouraged Catholic scholars to join in the scientific investigation of Scripture begun by Protestant Germany’s “Higher Critics.” It was a false dawn. Under Leo’s successor, Pius X (1903-14). church officials took arms against the heresy of modernism—which taught that Catholic dogma should be revised in the light of progress made by science and philosophy —and Bible scholars proved to be handy targets. Some found their writings placed on the Index; the top Catholic scholar of his day, Dominican Father Marie Joseph Lagrange, was dismissed from his teaching posts and for a time forbidden to pursue his critical investigations.

The Magna Carta. Catholic Bible experts began catching up with the rest of the scholarly world after 1943, when Pius XII issued his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. Written largely by German Jesuit Augustin Bea, now the cardinal in charge of Rome’s Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, the encyclical encouraged Catholics to study the historical background of Scripture, and to use modern critical techniques developed by Protestant and Jewish scholars. Bible scholars hailed the encyclical as their Magna Carta; conservative theologians thought it an open invitation to a modernist revival.

The conservatives took out their wrath in the kind of paper warfare scholars love: footnote-stippled articles in somber technical journals that few laymen ever see. Their principal target was Rome’s Jesuit-run Pontifical Biblical Institute, one of the two institutions in the world where Catholics can get a degree to teach Scripture.* In a series of finger-wagging papers, monsignori attached to Rome’s Curia—principally Paolo Cecchetti, Antonino Romeo and Antonio Piolanti—began hinting that certain teachers at the

Biblicum were skirting heresy. The attack was picked up by the arch-conservative American Ecclesiastical Review, edited by Monsignor Joseph Fenton of Catholic University, which began publishing articles that charged certain U.S. scholars with endangering the faith.

Well-placed Enemies. Father Ernest Vogt, rector of the Biblicum, dismissed the attacks as “systematically deformed calumnies”; yet it soon became clear that his enemies were well placed. In 1961 the Holy Office issued a monitum (warning) against excesses in Catholic Scriptural interpretation. Last June the Holy Office ordered two of the Biblicum’s New Testament scholars, Jesuit Fathers Maximilian Zerwick and Stanislaus Lyonnet, suspended from their teaching assignments. At a victory celebration in a Rome pensione that night, one Curia official gleefully said: “This time we shall break their monopoly.” Every bishop arriving in Rome for the Vatican Council last fall was handed a pamphlet, written by Monsignor Francesco Spadafora of the conservative Lateran University, asking that the fathers condemn the methods employed by Biblical critics.

The principal charge against the Biblical scholars is that they use in New Testament studies a technique called “form criticism,” which was developed during the 1920s by such German Protestants as Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann.

Catholic scholars are cautious in using this method, but they generally accept its basic assumptions: that the Gospels are redactions of sayings and narratives that cannot be properly interpreted without reference to the oral tradition that lies behind them.

By establishing the Sitz im Leben (life situation) of individual Gospel passages, form critics conclude that some can be judged factual accounts — but others are clearly not to be taken literally as records of events in Jesus’ life. Many form critics agree that the detail-laden narratives of Jesus’ Passion are derived from eyewitness accounts. But the story of the Magi, and Matthew’s account (27: 51-53) of the disturbances that took place in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death, appear to be folk tales that were devised to impress the faithful with the magnitude of underlying events. Form criticism suggests that many sayings of Jesus were shaped by the Evangelists, although they reflect Christ’s thoughts. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, is obviously a compilation of Christ’s teachings drawn from many different sources. The tongues of fire that came upon the disciples at Pentecost may be only the Biblical writer’s attempt to express a supernatural experience which defies human expression.

Protestant Praise. Far from destroying faith in the Bible as God’s word. this modern approach makes Scripture more comprehensible — and has contributed mightily to the modern-day revival of Catholic interest in the Bible. There are interesting new Catholic magazines on Scripture aimed at laymen, and thousands of parishes have organized Bible study groups for their parishioners. Non-Catholic scholars readily grant the quality of such modern Catholic Bibles as the English translations prepared by the late Monsignor Ronald Knox and the U.S.’s still-incomplete Confraternity editions, both of which were designed to replace the classic but archaic Douay version. A religious bestseller (more than 1.000,000 copies) is the French Jerusalem Bible, translated by the staff of Ecole Biblique, a respected center for Biblical research run by the Dominican order in the Jordanian section of Jerusalem.

The scholarly spadework that lies behind these new translations has appeared in topflight technical journals — such as the Catholic Biblical Quarterly in the U.S. and Revue Biblique put out by the Ecole Biblique — which are read and respected by scholars of all faiths. Protestant Bible students have high regard for the work of such men as Catholic University’s Semitics expert, Monsignor Patrick Skehan, Father David Stanley of the State University of Iowa, Jesuit John McKenzie of Loyola University of Chicago. Says W. D. Davies, professor of Biblical Theology at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary: “I wouldn’t dream of undertaking a scholarly work without studying what Catholics have done first.” Catholics and Protestants still disagree on the theological interpretation of many Scriptural texts—for example, Jesus’ words in Matthew (16: 16-19), which Catholics say define the primacy of Peter among the Apostles. But, notes Father Roland Murphy, editor of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, “Catholics and Protestant scholars have found a common bond —the task of explaining the Word of God in its historical perspective.” Today Scriptural criticism may be the most ecumenical of all pursuits. “I’m working in the closest understanding with every good Protestant scholar,” says Dominican Father Roland de Vaux, head of the Ecole Biblique and world-famed as one of the editors of the Dead Sea Scrolls. “We don’t agree on everything, but the more we study, the more we discover, the more we understand—and the more we agree.” This agreement is now going beyond the sharing of manuscripts and archaeological finds to a more exciting task: the creation of a Bible translation common to all Christians. In France and Germany, Protestant and Catholic scholars have jointly begun work on new translations of the New Testament; Catholics are working on an interdenominational Bible now being edited by Presbyterian Scholars William F. Albright and David Noel Freedman.

The Bishops Agree. Will attacks by Roman conservatives block this ecumenical encounter? The Biblical scholars ar dently hope not; but the battle is not over. On their side, the scholars point to the willingness of many dogmatic and moral theologians to accept their findings, the new understanding of Biblical research among the hierarchy. At the Vatican Council, a majority of bishops voted against a schema on the sources of revelation, prepared by Holy Office theologians, that would have rigorously distinguished between Scripture and tradition; Biblical scholars and most “liberal” theologians see them as a single source of dogma. In December the members of a theological commission assigned to formulate the schema on Scripture rejected a proposal signed by 19 conservative cardinals to impose new restrictions on Bible scholars. “Criticism can always be expected in any church,” concludes Father de Vaux. “But honest study of the Bible can only bring together all faiths and people who base their religious inspiration and beliefs on the Bible. And this means all Christians. Ultimately, full understanding of the Bible will mean full agreement among all Christian confessions.”

Students at other universities can get a degree by passing an exam set by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, a committee of experts chosen by the Pope to deal with the doctrinal problems of Scripture interpretation.

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