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The MOST Theological Collection: Basic Scripture

"Chapter 3: A Revolution by Pius XII?"


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There is no doubt that the great Scriptural Encyclical of Pius XII, Divino afflante Spiritu, issued in 1943, was and has been a great encouragement and help to Scripture study. But was it a real turn-about, so that Wilfred Harrington was right in saying (The New Guide to Reading and Studying the Bible, Enlarged Edition, Glazier, Wilmington, 1984, p. 32) that "the effect of that document had changed Roman Catholic biblical studies beyond recognition."

A major claim is that it was formerly forbidden to use the approach via literary genres - some prominent scholars had been disciplined for being rather free.

First a word about disciplinary actions - for we must carefully distinguish such decrees from doctrinal decrees. Yes, some scholars did suffer, but the reason was the need for precautions against two things: the new teaching of evolution, and the widespread heresy of Modernism.

When Darwin first proposed evolution, it shook the faith of many, both Catholic and Protestant. For although the Church had never taught a crude or fundamentalistic view of the creation account in Genesis, so many thought it had done so. In the minds of many, there was a tie-in, such that if they accepted evolution, the whole faith would be gone. That never was true, but the fact that people thought so, created a danger. We think of the story of a little boy who came and said: "Mommy, I just found out there is no Santa Claus. And I am going to look into this little Jesus story too!" Today, now that that psychological danger is gone, the Church no longer hinders writings on evolution, as Pope Pius XII explicitly said in Humani generis, in 1950 (DS 3896): "The Magisterium of the Church does not forbid that the theory of evolution... be investigated and discussed by experts in both science and theology... they are rash and go too far who act as if the origin of the human body from preexisting and living matter... were certain and fully proved."

But at first there was the great danger mentioned. Hence there was need of disciplinary action, to protect the faith of the many, until the passage of time would remove the bad psychology. A fundamentalist view would say that God made the world in 6 times 24 hours, that there were only 4000 years before Christ, that God literally made a clay statue and breathed upon it, and similar things. In others words, such people neglect the lesson of literary genres. They do not ask what is the genre of Genesis 1-3. It is actually an ancient story, made up to serve as a vehicle for teaching some things that really happened, chiefly: God made all things, in some special way He made the first pair (we leave room for possible theistic evolution, one that sees the need of God's intervention every time higher being appears), that He gave them some command (we do not know if it was about a fruit tree - that may be stage dressing in the story, something not asserted), that they violated His orders and fell from favor (= lost grace and so did not have it to pass on to their children). Pius XII in the Encyclical Humani generis, in 1950 wrote (DS 3898) that, "the first chapters of Genesis, even though they do not strictly match the pattern of historical writing used by the great Greek and Roman writers of history, or of historians of our times, yet in a certain true sense - which needs further study -do pertain to the genre of history." We have just suggested in what way they do pertain to history, namely, in that they report things that really happened, through the vehicle of a story.

Had the Church once taught a fundamentalistic view? First, to retell the story of Genesis in the same or similar words, does not amount to an interpretation. But further, the Fathers of the first centuries seldom tried to find what the ancient author really meant to say (=asserted). We comment that the words "literal sense" have two meanings, one which we have just indicated, which tries to find what the author meant to assert, taking into account genre, differences of language and culture etc. The other would treat the text as though written by a modern American and ignore genre and all such things. The Fathers instead preferred allegory, in which one thing stands for another. When they did seek the proper literal sense, they often were not at all fundamentalistic. For example, St. Augustine, in his De Genesi ad Litteram 6. 12. 20 (Literal Sense of Genesis) wrote: "That God made man with bodily hands from the clay is an excessively childish thought, so that if Scripture had said this, we should rather believe that the writer used a metaphorical term, than to suppose God is bounded by such lines of limbs as we see in our bodies." St. John Chrysostom made a similar comment on the episode of the creation of Eve from Adam's rib in Genesis 2:21-22. He said, in his Homily on Genesis 22. 21: "See the condescendence [adaptation to human weakness] of divine Scripture, what words it uses because of our weakness. 'And He took', it says, 'one of his ribs.' Do not take what is said in a human way, but understand that the crassness of the words fits human weakness." St. John did not suggest what was the sober way to take the text. A fine suggestion was made by Pope John Paul II in his Audience of November 7, 1979. He said putting Adam to sleep could stand for a return to the moment before creation, so that man might reemerge in his double unity as male and female.

What of the claim that the approach via literary genres had once been forbidden? It is not really true. On June 23, 1905, the Biblical Commission gave a reply: "Can that be accepted as a principle of sound interpretation which holds 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 in the case 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 under the appearance and form of history, the sacred author intended to give a parable, an allegory, or a sense differing from the properly literal or historical sense of the words." In the case of evolution, there was danger from a false psychology. In the case of literary genres, there was danger from Modernism, which radically reinterpreted everything, so that Pius X called it the synthesis of all heresies. So the Church needed to be careful while the danger was fresh. Yet even at the start, the reply of the Biblical Commission did not really forbid the use of the genre approach, it merely insisted on careful scholarship, restricting the genre approach to things not against the sense of the Church, and requiring evidence for the genre used.

Later, when the danger seemed to have abated, Pius XII could positively encourage that which the Commission had only gingerly allowed. Even today Vatican II insists on careful scholarship, says that all must be subject to the Magisterium (DV #10) and adds that one must watch for the sense of the Church and "the analogy of faith (DV # 12) - see if a proposal fits with the whole body of teachings of the Church.

In addition, some say that the early decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission were mostly reversed: those decrees had said: a) Moses was substantially the author of the Pentateuch (first five books of Old Testament), b) That the early chapters of Genesis were historical, c) That there was only one author for the book of Isaiah, d) That Matthew was the first Gospel, e) That Luke and Acts were written in the 60s, f) That Paul was the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Let us look carefully at the evidence for each point. But let us say at the outset that who was the author of a book of Scripture is not a matter of faith, but of history. Even so, let us look at the claims:

a) Mosaic authorship of Pentateuch: The Biblical Commission said on June 27, 1906 it was permissible to hold "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 original (1968) edition of Jerome Biblical Commentary (I. p. 5) 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." The ancient usage in mind is this: rights of authorship were not well respected. Some later person might change or add, and leave it under the name of the original author.

The NJBC has pulled back from this position. It is believed by many that the Pentateuch was put together out of four basic documents: Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly Code, and Deuteronomist - hence the name JEPD for the Documentary Theory. But that Documentary theory is not proved. Joseph Blenkinsopp of Notre Dame in his review of R. N. Whybray, The Making of the Pentateuch (Journal For Study of Old Testament Supplement 5. Sheffield, 1987) wrote (CBQ Jan. 1989, pp. 138-39): "It is widely known by now that the documentary hypothesis is in serious trouble, with no viable alternative yet in sight." He continues saying that Whybray has easily shown the fragility of many of the arguments given for the theory, sometimes requiring an unreasonable level of consistency within the sources, at other times not. Further, Newsweek of Sept. 28, 1981, p. 59 reported that Yehuda Radday, coordinator of the Technion Institute in Israel, fed the Hebrew text of Genesis into a computer, and concluded: "It is most probable that the book of Genesis was written by one person."

So we cannot be sure Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch in the ancient sense.

b) istorical nature of the first chapters of Genesis: We already cited Pius XII saying that in some way the first eleven chapters pertain to history, even though not a history of the type written by the great Greek and Roman writers, or by modern writers. We take this to mean that the literary genre is such that by the vehicle of a story, things that really happened substantially are conveyed. We add now that the theory of evolution is far from proved even today. The Research News section of Science, November 21, 1980 gives a long report on a conference held at the Field Museum in Chicago, of geologists, paleontologists, ecologists, population geneticists, embryologists, and molecular biologists. The majority of the 160 participants decided Darwin was wrong, in the sense that the fossil record does not show the intermediate forms Darwin supposed. So they - still not willing to abandon evolution - thought up a new theory of "punctuated equilibria" according to which a species might stay the same for millions of years, and then by some fluke, a much higher form, in the same type, would appear. If they had evidence that this actually happened, the research report did not mention it. The closest one could find to that would be the Grand Canyon, in which there are high vertical layers exposed, with simple organisms such as Trilobites down below, more and more complex things as one goes higher. But there was no proof that any of the higher ones simply came from the lower. It would take great faith - without basis -to suppose that. If one uses the mathematics of factorials to calculate the chances of such a fluke, the odds against it are enormous.

c) One Isaiah: It is now common to say that the Book of Isaiah had two or even three authors. The reasons given are these: first Isaiah threatens disaster, second Isaiah is addressed to exiles in Babylon; Jerusalem has been deserted. Second Isaiah mentions the dynasty of David, but transfers its privileges to the whole people (55:3-5). In Third Isaiah, Israel is back again in her own land and the problems spoken of in chapters 1-39 are no longer present. Similarly, the tone varies in the three parts - from threats - to sorrow - to consolation.

It is quite possible that there were three authors, for this is a problem of history, not of faith. However, the arguments given are inadequate. One Isaiah could have been given a prophetic vision to see the exile and the return. Really, the Deuteronomic pattern (threat, punishment, rescue) alone would suggest that, for it too moved from threat to punishment, to restoration. One wonders: was this theory of several authors originally motivated by the conviction that there can be no real prophecies?

d) Matthew's Priority: For long most scholars have held that Mark wrote first. That consensus is now weakening, several major works have called it into doubt. For example: W. R. Farmer, The Synoptic Problem (Dillsboro, 1976); Bernard Orchard, Matthew, Luke and Mark, (Manchester, 1977); E. P. Sanders, The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition (Cambridge, 1969); John M. Rist, On the Independence of Matthew and Mark (Cambridge, 1978); Hans-Herbert Stoldt, History and Criticism of the Marcan Hypothesis (Edinburgh, 1980). The ancient witnesses put Matthew first. However, they were thinking of the Hebrew Matthew. We do not know the relation of our Greek Matthew to the Hebrew. In any case, it is a respectable opinion today, gaining in support, to deny that Mark wrote first.

The reasons for putting Mark first are not solid. They say that the prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem, is not as clear, chiefly in 13:14, as it might have been. So Mark wrote before 70. But then they think that Matthew and Luke used Mark - since there is so much material similar in all three at many points: but this does not prove which of the three wrote first. Further, they say, Matthew and Luke are rather clear about the fall of Jerusalem, and so must have written after it happened. Luke even speaks of an army surrounding Jerusalem.

The reasoning is very weak. In ancient sieges, an army always surrounded a city. As to Matthew, he is clearly so fond of reporting fulfillments of prophecies, he could hardly have refrained from mentioning the fulfillment of the prophecy of Jesus about that fall if he had written after it happened.

There is also the claim that Matthew seems not to know the debate which St. Paul had with the Judaizers, in which he insisted we are free from the law, while Jesus said (Mt. 5:17) that He came not to destroy but to fulfill. But there is a good explanation. First, Matthew had a different purpose from Paul's. Secondly, if we get the setting, we will see how it all happened. Some Judaizers said that Christ is not enough - one must also keep the law. Paul naturally replied that Christ is sufficient, we need not keep the law. But he also made clear to all but Luther that if one violates the law he is lost: 1 Cor 6. 9-10; Gal 5:19-21; Rom 3:31; Eph 5:5. Luther did not know what Paul meant by the word faith, and thought it meant just the conviction that the merits of Christ count for him ("taking Christ as personal Savior"). After that, as Luther wrote to Melanchthon in Epistle 501: "Even if you sin greatly believe more greatly." The volume, Justification by Faith: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, eds. H. G. Anderson, T. A. Murphy, J. A. Burgess (Augsburg, Minneapolis, 1985) ## 24 & 29 admits that poor Luther was scrupulous, he thought he was in mortal sin all or most of the time. He found peace only by thinking it made no difference if he did sin mortally. He could be all right if he just had faith that Christ had paid for his sins. But St. Paul meant something quite different by faith, as even the Protestant Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Supplement, p. 333 admits. If God speaks a truth, faith will believe mentally; if God makes a promise, faith will have confidence; if God gives an order, faith will obey (cf. "obedience of faith": Rom 1:5). All of this is to be done in love. Now, how could faith dispense one from obedience, as Luther thought, when obedience is an essential element of faith!

Briefly, Jesus said we must become like little children to enter heaven. Paul said if we break the law we will not inherit. We inherit as children of our Father and coheirs with Christ (Rom 8:17). So Jesus and Paul taught the same. For one who believes in the fact that the same Holy Spirit is the chief author of all books of Scripture, no difficulty at all could arise.

e) Luke and Acts written in the 60's: Objectors also claim Luke must have written late, and did not know Paul because St. Paul, who was supposed to be present at the Council of Apostles in Jerusalem, according to Acts 15, seemed not to know of its decree, found in Acts 15:28-29 which said people were free from the Mosaic law, but yet asked them to do a few things, including abstention from food sacrificed to idols. Yet Paul in 1 Cor. chapter 8 said they could eat such meat, unless there would be scandal. But the answer is simple: If the Vatican today sends an order to the Bishops of some one area, it holds only in that area, not outside it. So Paul did preach the decree within the area to which it was sent, Syria and Cilicia (cf. Acts 16:4. For more details on the agreement of Acts and Paul's Epistles, cf. Wm. G. Most, Free From All Error, Libertyville, Il, 1990, chapter 18).

f) Paul as author of the Epistle to the Hebrews: There were considerable doubts about Pauline authorship even in the first centuries. It as about the 4th century before the West accepted it, though the East did so earlier. The June 24, 1914 reply of the Biblical Commission asked (EB 418) whether it was necessary to say that Paul gave it its present form. The answer was, "No. subject to further judgment of the Church." The first two parts of the same reply spoke more strongly in favor of Paul's authorship, so that the third only said we are not sure Paul gave it its present form.

The chief difficulty against Pauline authorship is the style. But anyone who has ever read Tacitus' historical works in the original Latin, and has also compared them with his Dialogue on Orators will never be moved much by stylistic differences. The style of Tacitus in his historical works is highly distinctive, even pungent. It is day and night different from that of the Dialogue. Yet other arguments have convinced practically all scholars that it really is by Tacitus.

It is easy enough to conclude that while the Encyclical of Pius XII was a real impetus it was not a revolution, and surely did not reverse any previous doctrinal positions. We add that it encouraged translations from the original languages. There had been a misunderstanding from the fact that the Council of Trent had declared the Vulgate "authentic". It meant merely that it was a proper base for religious discussion. It did not mean to forbid translations from the original.

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