Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

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

"Chapter 8: Charges of Religious Errors"


Browse by Title
New Search
Table of Contents for this Work

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 B.C. 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.

To Most Collection home page