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The MOST Theological Collection: Free From All Error: Authorship, Inerrancy, Historicity of Scripture, Church Teaching, and Modern Scripture Scholars

"Chapter 9: Cardinal Koenig on Error in Scripture"


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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 A.D., 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 beseiged Jerusalem in the third year of King Jehoiakim, i.e., 607 B.C., but from the authentic chronicle of King Nebuchadnezzar that has been discovered, we know that the seige 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.

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