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"Chapter 6: The 1964 Instruction of the Biblical Commission"


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On April 21, 1964, The Pontifical Biblical Commission issued an Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels. Left wing scholars often quote only the parts they like, and omit other important things. We will try to give a broad coverage of the document.

The most important feature of the document is what it has to say about Form and Redaction Criticism.

Before looking at the comments in the Instruction, we notice something that is quite obviously true, which the Form and Redaction critics consider basic: in the production of the Gospels there were three stages:

1) The actions and words of Christ. We notice He would adapt His wording to the current audience. Any good speaker does that.

2) The way the Apostles and others of the first generation reported and preached what He did and said. Again, we would expect them to adapt the wording to the current audience. Therefore it is not necessary to suppose they used always the same words Jesus had used. But they would keep the same sense.

3) Some individuals within the Church, moved by inspiration, wrote down some part of what Jesus did and said. This became the Gospels.

Before going ahead, we inject the comment: In this way we see that the Church has something more basic than the Gospels, its own ongoing teaching. For the Gospels are just part of that teaching, written down under inspiration.

The critics would like to find at which of the three stages the text we now have took its present form. In this way they hope to find out some helpful things.

The study of the first two stages is called Form Criticism. The study of the third stage is called Redaction Criticism.

Thus far there can be no quarrel with this type of study. But problems begin to arise when we attempt to take the next steps.

The work begins with two things. First we try to classify each unit in the Gospels according to the literary form. This is much like literary genre, but attempts a more detailed classification. We might even speak of minigenres. The critics think each passage in the Gospels is made up of several of these units.

In the early days of Form Criticism, the critics commonly said the Evangelists were not authors at all. They were just "stringers of beads." Various people who had heard Jesus were reporting each just one thing He did or said. The Evangelists merely put these together in a string. Today the pendulum has swung far: now the critics see very remarkable artistry in the work of the Evangelists. (We recall that inspiration does not affect the literary style of an author one way or another).

The second thing the critics watch in order to separate out the various units is what they call Sitz-im-Leben. It merely means the life situation in which each form or unit arose, which called for the type of form. At this point already the critics begin to show their great subjectivity.

The two great pioneers who first applied this technique to the Gospels are R. Bultmann and M. Dibelius. (Still earlier, Hermann Gunkel [1862-1932] used the technique in the Old Testament).

First, Bultmann and Dibelius disagree on how to classify the minigenres. For Bultmann the two chief major forms are the Sayings and the Narratives. Sayings include apothegms and dominical sayings. The apothegms are brief sayings of some importance. They include controversy dialogues, scholastic dialogues (where the inquirers are sincere) and biographical sayings. Dibelius uses the name paradigms instead of apothegms. Dibelius thinks only eight out of eighteen paradigms are pure in form.

As to the so called controversy dialogues, Bultmann thinks they arose in the apologetic and polemic work of the Palestinian Church. He objects to calling these passages paradigms (examples of preaching) which is precisely what Dibelius does call them. For example, Bultmann says that the incident in Mark 2:1-12, the forgiveness and cure of the paralytic let down through the roof, is a controversy saying. But Dibelius says that such passages can't be described as disputes. Bultmann says the purpose was to enable the Church to trace its power to forgive sins back to Jesus. But Dibelius says the only point is the reality of the forgiveness.

It is remarkable to hear Bultmann admit explicitly:

"Naturally enough, our judgement will not be made in terms of objective criteria, but will depend on taste and discrimination" (R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, tr. J. Marsh, N.Y., Harper & Row, 1963, p.47).

The critics commonly assert that the primitive community was "creative." That is, it made things up. So Bultmann thought the controversy dialogues were creations of the Church. We could visualize it thus: two groups in the Church are disputing. Group A has no saying of Jesus to prove its point, so it makes one up. Group B does the same.

But on the contrary, the concern these Christians had for their own eternity would prevent such fakery. St. Ignatius of Antioch was sent to Rome to be eaten by the wild beasts, around 107 A.D. He was eaten. He wrote a heroic letter to Rome, which we still have, in which he says he wants to die for Christ. If one of the Christians there might have influence, and could get him off, Ignatius still wants to die! Now if anyone is tempted to think the community was creative, let him take a copy of Ignatius' letter to Rome to the zoo, and read it in front of the lions' den and ask himself if a man about to be eaten would be creative and indulge in fakery.

Not strangely, in view of the alleged creativity, the critics find it hard to be sure of anything. They propose four criteria to see if a thing is genuine: 1) Double dissimilarity or irreductibility: This means that if an idea is unlike the emphases of both ancient Judaism and early Christianity, it may come from Jesus; 2) Multiple attestation: if we find the same idea coming in different literary forms, it is more likely to be genuine; 3) Coherence: If the item fits with material we already know is authentic by other criteria, it is likely to be genuine. 4) Linguistic and environmental tests:. If the material does not fit with the languages spoken or the environment of Jesus we reject it. But if it does fit, it is not enough to prove it is authentic.

It is obvious that such criteria, especially the first, would rule out many things that are genuine. We saw earlier that we can make a bypass around these worries of critics by means of apologetics, using only six very simple things from the Gospels.

The leftists love to quote the fact that this 1964 Instruction does say Catholic scholars may use these techniques. This is correct, for the method can be used well and be helpful. But many like to forget the warnings in the Instruction: "Certain followers of this method, led astray by the prejudices of rationalism, [1] reject the existence of a supernatural order and the intervention of a personal God in the world as taught by revelation properly so called and, [2] they reject the possibility and actual existence of miracles and prophecies. [3] Others start with a false notion of faith, as if faith does not care about historical truth or is even incompatible with it. [4] Still others deny, as it were in advance, the historical value and character of the documents of revelation. [5] Others, finally, think little of the authority of the Apostles as witnesses of Christ, and of their role and influence on the primitive community, while they extol the creative power of this community. All these things are not only opposed to Catholic doctrine, but also lack a scientific foundation, and are foreign to the right principles of the historical method." [We added numbers for convenience in reference].

Of course persons like Bultmann have these prejudices. In regard to ##1 &2, Bultmann wrote that today "nobody reckons with direct intervention by transcendent powers" (Jesus Christ and Mythology, Charles Scribner's Sons, N.Y., 1958, p.36). On p.15 of the same book he says that the whole conception of the world supposed in the New Testament is mythological. In his Kerygma and Myth (ed. H. W. Bartsch, tr. Reginald H. Fuller, N.Y. Harper & Row Torchbooks, 1961, 2nd ed. I. p. 5) he says that anyone who has seen electric light and the wireless cannot believe in spirits and miracles.

Some Catholics have taken similar attitudes today. Thus R. E. Brown once wrote (in: "The Myth of the Gospels without Myth" in St. Anthony's Messenger, May 1971, pp.45-46) that to accept all the miracles in the Gospel would be fundamentalism, and adds that no respectable scholar, Catholic or Protestant would do that today. It is good to be able to say that now the NJBC (pp.1320-21), which espouses some unfortunate views on errors in Scripture, still admits that extraordinary deeds like exorcisms and cures by Jesus were never denied in ancient times, not even by the enemies of Jesus - they would instead attribute them to magic or the devil.

The third criticism of the Instruction says that some start with a false notion of faith, as if faith would not care about historical truth. Patrick Henry, in a broad survey of conditions at the time of writing (New Directions in New Testament Study, Westminster, 1979, pp.252-53) reports various views: "Much more important is the Bible's own portrayal of the 'piety of doubt', the 'faithfulness of uncertainty." And a writer in Catholic Biblical Quarterly (July 1982,pp.447-69) after saying Scripture is full of errors, says that to want to answer charges of error shows a lack of faith, and is "a kind of idolatry that gives a certitude that trespasses upon the true Christian faith-relationship with God." Shades of Bultmann, who in the article cited from Kerygma and Myth said, on pp. 211 and 19 that it is illegitimate and sinful to want to have a basis for faith!

In regard to # 4, the denial of the historical character, we must of course, take into account the genre of any part of Scripture we are considering. But some insist that the Gospels are just preaching. In a way this is true they are preaching. We recall that the third stage mentioned above consists of writing down some part of the original preaching under inspiration. But we must still remember that concern for their eternity would mean that the preaching of the Apostles and others was the truth. Some writers today make statements that could be confusing. Thus Joseph Fitzmyer, in Christological Catechism (Paulist, 1981, p. 118, note 34) writes that it is not easy to define what a gospel is or to say in what "gospel truth" may consist. "In any case" he says ", it is not simply identical with 'historical truth' in some fundamentalistic sense."

In contrast, DV §19 tells us: "Holy Mother the Church firmly and most constantly has held and does hold that the four Gospels mentioned, whose historicity it unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus the Son of God, living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation." Bede Rigeaux, in his commentary on this passage in the Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (edited by H. Vorgrimler III, p. 259) explained that in this passage we see the clear intention of the Church to accept the value of the synoptic Gospels "as testimony to the reality of the events that they narrate and to the certainty with which they present us with the Person, the words, and the acts of Jesus."

The Instruction does grant what we said before, that the Gospels do not always use the same words, but adapt them to their audience: "The fact that the Evangelists report the words or deeds of the Lord in different order does not affect at all the truth of the narrative, for they keep the sense, while reporting His statements, not to the letter, but in different ways."

There has been confusion about a further statement in DV § 19: "The Apostles after the ascension of the Lord, handed on to their hearers the things which He Himself had said and done, with the fuller understanding which they enjoyed since they were instructed by the glorious events of Christ and the light of the Spirit of truth." Cf. Jn 2:19-21; 3:22; 6:6; 12:16; 20:9.

Of course, this does not mean they invented things or falsified things. For example, the Gospels still portray the Apostles as slow to understand and weak in character. They had not understood His prophecies of His death and resurrection, since their minds were filled with the false notion that He would restore the kingship to Israel - just before the ascension one of them asked if that was the time for it (Acts 1:6). And after the multiplication of the loaves, they had not understood that either, as Mark 6:52 reports.

Again, they did not understand His predictions of His death and resurrection at the time they were given. Later, in the light of the glorious events, they did understand, and preached correctly and wrote appropriately in the Gospels, without, however, presenting themselves as having understood at the time.

So the Instruction did well to warn against considerable dangers, which Catholic scholars have not always avoided. But yet the technique is valuable, even though it can be used well or badly. Let us look at an example or two, both good and bad.

Reginald H. Fuller, one of the chief critics, in Foundations of New Testament Christology (Charles Scribner's Sons, N.Y.1965, p.109) made a very influential analysis of Mark 8:29-33. Jesus is up at Caesarea Philippi. He asks His disciples who people says He is. They report various views. Now we will number the units Fuller thought he found: 1) He asks the Apostles who they say He is. Peter replies: You are the Messiah. 2) Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about it. 3) He predicts His death and resurrection, and Peter objects to His death. 4) "Get behind me, satan."

Fuller found no objection to units 1 and 4. But He thought units 2 and 3 were faked by the Church. Jesus had never said He was Messiah. Later the Church was embarrassed, and so invented scenes in which the subject would come up, and Jesus would tell them to keep quiet about it. This notion is really the result of the work of Wilhelm Wrede, The Messianic Secret (tr. J. C. C. Greig, James Clarke Co., Cambridge and London, 1971, 3rd edition). Wrede gave several instances in the Gospels, in which this happened. He said his strongest case was the raising of the daughter of Jairus, after which Jesus called for silence. But, exclaimed Wrede: anyone could see the girl was alive. So this was faked by the Church.

The reply is extremely simple: Jesus went into the house with only the parents, and Peter, James and John. He raised the girl, and called for silence. If the crowds found out, they might seize Him and proclaim Him king Messiah, with a false notion of Messiahship. But how long did He need to keep it quiet? Just long enough for Him to slip out quietly and get on His way to the next village.

So Fuller and Wrede have failed to invalidate the second unit.

In the third unit Jesus predicts His death and resurrection. But, when these things happened, the Apostles acted as if they had never heard about them. So, the critics conclude: The Church faked this unit.

Again, the answer is simple: If someone has a fixed framework of ideas in his mind, and something that would clash tries to get in, it usually does not get in. For example, in the 19th century, one of the three discoverers of germs (along with Pasteur and Lister) was Dr. Semmelweis in Hungary. He therefore told the other Doctors to use antiseptic precautions - which they had never heard of. So they put him into an insane asylum for the rest of his life!. (Scientists can be rougher on science than the Church!).

Again, Norman Perrin of the University of Chicago said in his book, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (Harper & Row, N.Y., 1967, p.16) that at one time he was inclined to believe the Gospels. But then, form criticism over and over again showed him he could not trust them. He gives his strongest example: Mark 9.1, "There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Kingdom of God come with power." Mt 16:28 is the same, except that they will see "the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." In Lk 9:27 they see merely "the Kingdom of God." Matthew and Mark, thinks Perrin, expect the end soon. But Luke has settled down to "the long haul of history." So there is a clash.

Again, the answer is easy. All three synoptics put this line just before the Transfiguration, so that could be what they would see. But better, many scholars admit (e.g., John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible, p.481; R. E. Brown, in The Churches the Apostles Left Behind, p. 52 - cf. also his Responses to 101 Questions on the Bible, p. 12) that often in the Synoptics the Church is called the Kingdom of God. Thus in the end of the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus says (Mt 21:43): "The kingdom will be taken from you and given to a people who will bring fruit." It meant that the Pharisees would be out of the People of God, and others would take their place (the gentiles). The implication is similar in the parable of the net and the parable of the weeds in the wheat, as well as in other places.

So they will see the kingdom, the Church, and it will be coming with power. Power in the Greek is dynamis. That word in the plural means displays of power, i.e., miracles. So they will live to see the Church being spread with miracles. As to the form in Matthew, they will see the Son of Man, Christ, coming in His kingdom. It means visiting, taking care of His Church by His power (the concept of Hebrew paqad, taking care of it). Luke's reading, "the kingdom" is of course no problem, makes no clash. So Perrin was not really "forced" by form criticism to give up on the Gospels. He had a mental framework, in which there was no room for the facts on this text.

So Fuller's analysis fails since he did not succeed in showing units 2 and 3 to be false, faked by the Church. But if we, since it is interesting, imagine he had proved it, then he would read units 1 and 4: Jesus asks the Apostles who they say He is. Peter says: The Messiah. "Get behind me satan". He angrily rejects the title of Messiah.

This false analysis has been a large root of the claims of ignorance in Jesus.

Then there is the strange case of Teilhard de Chardin, who thought that just before the return of Christ at the end, most people would be joined together in a wonderful unity, like a totalitarian state, but not painful: it would be love that would bind them. He must have read Luke 18:8: "When the Son of Man comes, do you think He will find faith on the earth?" or 2 Thessalonians 2.3 which also predicted a great falling away from the faith. Or Matthew 24:12: "Because sin will reach its peak, the love of most people will grow cold. Chardin too had a fixed framework of ideas, and so could not see.

But as we said, this technique can be used well. For example, Mark 13:30 says: "This generation will not pass away before all these things take place." Form criticism helps us here, by pointing out that things are sometimes put into different settings, so that it is likely that the original context of this verse was one of the fall of Jerusalem. Still further, Hebrew dor can mean generation, but can also mean a time period - here - the Christian regime - and so the sense could be that the Christian regime is the last phases of God's dealings with our race. It is never to be replaced as the Old Testament was. DV § 4 assures us this is the case.

One more example. When Jesus says that if anyone would come after Him, he must take up his cross. Now the cross in the literal sense was known to all the people of his land and time. But He meant it in a modified sense, in the sense of imitating him by self-denial and acceptance of providential sufferings. We gather then, that it is not very likely that Jesus used these words about taking up one's cross, though He expressed the same thought in another way. It would be only later, when the Church had meditated on this point, that such language would be understood by most persons.

Form and Redaction criticism today is under some attack. Reginald H. Fuller, a chief critic, and author of the analysis of the scene at Caesarea Philippi we just saw, has now charged that Form criticism is bankrupt, and that the bankruptcy should be overcome by feedback from the believing community! Fuller showed bad judgment twice. First there was bad judgment when he and others were so very confident they had scientifically proved things, when really the whole historical critical method (of which Form Criticism is a part, as also the approach via literary genres) seldom gives conclusive proof of anything, since it relies mostly on internal evidence (e.g., the claim that Luke wrote the prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem after 70 AD since he spoke of any army surrounding Jerusalem). Internal evidence by its nature seldom gives more than probability. Fuller shows bad judgment a second time in throwing out the baby with the bath, for these techniques really are useful if only one uses them with keen awareness of their limitations.

Further, the critics, as we saw, think it important to discover the life situation, the Sitz-im-Leben of each form. But there is heavy uncertainty about a very major case of this. The traditional view was that Mark wrote at Rome, from the preaching of St. Peter. Some major scholars still agree, e.g., Martin Hengel of Tübingen, in his Studies in the Gospel of Mark (tr. J. Bowden, Philadelphia, Fortress, 1985, p.29). Hengel thinks Mark wrote to help Christians facing the persecution of Nero. But others, e.g., Wilfred Harrington (Mark, Wilmington, Glazier,1979 p. xii) thinks it comes from a Christian community in Syria between 66 and 70 AD. R. E. Brown, in Antioch and Rome (Brown and Meier, Paulist, 1983, pp.199-200) admits he cannot know what purpose Mark had in mind ,and that we cannot be sure we know what is tradition and what is editing by Mark - a major step in Form Criticism. C. F. Evans, in The Cambridge History of the Bible (3 vols., Cambridge University, 1960-63, I, pp.270-71) is almost in despair on this question about Mark.

In regard to the possible rearrangement of materials by the Evangelists, we must ask about retrojection? It consists in writing up something that really happened after the resurrection as if it happened before. Could this be legitimately done? Yes under some conditions, chiefly that the words attributed to Jesus were really said by Him, even if in different form. Otherwise retrojection is a lie, and contrary to inspiration. Today there is much ferment about the question of whether it was chiefly the Romans, or the Jews who were guilty of the death of Jesus. Vatican II, in Nostra aetate §4 said there is a special and a general guilt. All who sin have the general guilt. But only those Jews who were before Pilate screaming for His blood contracted the special guilt. We could add that even those Jews not present may have acquiesced or ratified it by their persecution which came very soon.

But to blame merely or chiefly the Romans is to make a lie of St. John’s gospel, and parts of Matthew as well. John pictured Pilate as knowing the innocence of Jesus and of trying to get Him off.

The retrojectors like to blame most of this on the Romans, and say that later in the century, when hostility between Jews and Christians became hot, the Christians invented, retrojected, the claims of His clash with the Jews.

To say that is to make the Gospels a lie. Sadly, not only some Jews but even some Catholics, even priests and Bishops, charge this retrojection.

Commentators on Daniel very often say that his book contains prophecies made after the event--that is, it was written after the time of Antiochus IV of Syria, and retrojected to the 6th century. Would such a retrojecton be illegitimate? No in this special case, for the genre is apocalyptic, in which fanciful things can be said without deception.

Another fertile source of confusion is the use of the theologoumenon. In that pattern we find language changed very greatly, e.g., these commentators say she was not physically a virgin: to say that is just a way of expressing her holiness. How can we know if such a thing is being done in a concrete case? At least most of the time we must have recourse to the teachings of the Magisterium. Several early Councils, cited in Vatican II, On the Church §57,have affirmed that physically she was a virgin. LG 57 itself said she showed her Firstborn to the shepherds and the Magi, He who did not diminish but consecrated her virginal integrity." That last word is of course a physical word.

In similar ways and by the abuse of form and redaction criticism, the pseudo-scholars are having a field day, vying as it were with each other to see who can say the most outrageous things. Then the media call them heralds of new knowledge. But those who follow what we have just explained need not be misled.

We need to notice too that Semites are apt to use approximation, as Pius XII reminded us in his Encyclical. Especially is this the case on numbers. Thus the Hebrew of Jonah says God will destroy the city in 40 days. But the Greek LXX makes it 3 days. In Galatians 1-2 Paul says that after his conversion he went to Arabia, and then after three years went to Jerusalem. We do not know where to start counting the three years. Also he says in 2.1 that after 14 years he went to Jerusalem again-we do not know where to start counting the 14 years. And in Numbers 25.1 we read that 24,000 Jews fell--but Paul in 1 Cor 10.8 gives only 23,000.

Semites are not modern Americans.