The Father William Most Collection
Scripture Full of Errors?
[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]
Is Scripture full of errors? Many say so today. At Vatican II, On Oct 2, 1964, Cardinal Koenig of Vienna rose, said there were many, gave off a list. Many Bishops chimed in. But Holy Spirit was on hand, and final document shows no trace of that. Yet some today say Scripture has so many errors that to try to answer all is like putting patches on a sinking ship.
These charges can all be answered.
We do not mean we take all crudely. The words "literal sense" have two meanings: 1) take text as if written by 20th century American: that is silly. Ancient Semites are not modern Americans; 2) Learn how the ancient Semites wrote, understand it the way the author meant it, the way the first readers took it.
We need several things for that. First, we need to now what are called literary genres, which means patterns of writing. To illustrate, think of a modern historical novel about Civil War. Main line is history, background fits - but we expect fill-ins that are fiction, e.g., long conversations between Lincoln and Grant. Or a bit of romance among minor sideline characters. The key word is assert. Writer meant to assert that the mainline is history that the background fits - did not assert these fill-ins are real. So we do not charge him with error. We, as natives of this culture, naturally know how to take these things. But in a very different culture -Ancient Semitic - we must study to see what genres they used.
For there are many genres in English, and in ancient Semitic. Each has as it were its own rules, such as we illustrated with the case of a historical novel. In English, we adjust automatically, we are natives. But to understand ancient Semites, we must learn their ways of writing, their genres. For this we do not just guess, we must study to find historically what genres were in use in those times in those lands. This is being faithful to Scripture - to ignore that is to impose one's own ideas on Scripture, and that is very unfaithful.
To illustrate, the first 11 chapters of Genesis, according to Pope John Paul II are myth - he picked a poor word, it doesn't mean just fairytale, no basis. No he meant an ancient story made to bring out some things that really happened. Here are the chief things: God made all things - in some special way (note the broad way of speaking) He made the fist human pair - He gave them some command - we do not know if it was about a fruit tree - whatever it was, they violated His orders and fell from favor or grace.
Starting at chapter 12 genre shifts, and is mostly epic - the story of the beginnings of a great people. It is basically history, but with some fanciful elements added.
In Daniel there are 2 genres: first, apocalyptic - a pattern that uses bizarre images which must be toned down to get the sober sense - and edifying narrative - these are stories, which need only a little truth, but they give a lift, something like the relation of science fiction to real science. Cardinal Koenig did not understand this, and so thought there was an error in very first line of Daniel. Not so.
So if we carefully work this way we can solve countless problems in Scripture - early this century scholars, both Protestant and Catholic, saw many difficulties. They could solve some, not all. But they had faith and said: Even if we cannot solve them, there must be an answer. Today we do know how to solve countless things they could not solve - and the ironic thing, at this very time, the very scholars who know how to use this genre approach plus other things, are claiming extensive errors.
We need to know other things about ancient Semitic ways to understand some things. Often we need to know what Hebrew or Aramaic word is in the mind of the writer to understand the Greek. E.g., in Lk 14:26 Jesus tells us we must hate our parents. We should know Hebrew lacks the degrees of comparison, such as good, better, best. We would say: love one more, the other less. Again in 1 Thes 4:5 Paul speaks of the Gentiles who do not know God. But he has in mind Hebrew yada which means love, obey as well as know. Again, Paul often uses Greek dikaiosyne to mean not our sense of justice, but the Hebrew sense of sedaqah, the virtue that gets us to do all that morality requires.
Vatican II wrote, in On Revelation §11: "Since all that is asserted by the human author should be considered as asserted by the Holy Spirit, therefore the books of Scripture are to be held as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error, the truth which God wanted to be confided to the sacred letters for the sake of our salvation."
We note the Council says whatever the human writer asserts is asserted by the Holy Spirit. We just saw that word assert in connection with genre. The Council means to use that framework.
Some foolishly take the underlined words as restrictive and say only things needed for salvation are free of error - all else, science, history, even religion, may be in error. But those who make this mistake do not notice that the Council itself added some footnotes. Note 4 sends us to a text of Leo XIII which excludes errors of every kind. And other notes cite Vatican I (DS 3006) saying the principal author is the Holy Spirit. But He cannot be in error. Therefore. Pius XII, in His Divino afflante Spiritu said that these words of Vatican I are a solemn definition. So the foolish commentators think Vatican II is contradicting a solemn definition!
Wm. G. Most, Free From All Error (Marytown Prow Press, 1600 W. Park, Libertyville, Il 60048) gives many examples of how to solve problems, including that of Job 14:13, which someone says indicates there is no survival after death! The same book also explains other techniques for working.
Specially important is Form and Redaction Criticism. It starts by saying Gospels arose in 3 stages: 1) Words and acts of Jesus. He would adapt His words to current audience. 2) The Apostles and others at start preached these things, but also adapted their language to current audience. So they may not give exact words of Jesus, but their concern for their own eternity led them to be really careful to keep the sense. 3) Some individuals in the Church, under inspiration of Holy Spirit, wrote down some part of this primitive preaching. That became the Gospels. So the Gospels are just part of the ongoing basic teaching of the Church set down under inspiration. So the Church has something more basic than the Gospels, its own ongoing teaching, also protected by the Holy Spirit. Cf. Lk 10:16:"He who hears you, hears me."
Rationalist critics talking of stage 2, do not mention Apostles - as if there could be a headless community in Judaism!. And they say the first Christians just made things up,"created". But let them read the Letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to Rome on his way to be eaten alive by the animals. He told the Romans: In case some of you have influence and might get me off: don't. I want to die for Christ. So, take a copy of his letter to the zoo, read it by the lions' den, and ask: Is he just creating, making things up?
Genre approach solves many problems. Form Criticism does so too, but is more easily abused. Here is a good example. In Mk 13:30:
"This generation will not pass away until all these things be accomplished." It did not mean Jesus thought the end was near. No, we gather from Mt 24 that the disciples had asked two questions: what are signs for fall of Jerusalem? signs for your return? Form criticism shows that often passages are put together out of lines that once were independent. So we can see that Mk 13:30 originally referred to the fall of Jerusalem.