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"Chapter 10 Pope Leo XIII on Principles of History"


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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 B.C.). 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.

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