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Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels

by Pontifical Biblical Commission


This Instruction De Historica Evangeliorum Veritate was approved by Pope Paul VI who ordered its publication on April 21, 1964.

Larger Work

The American Ecclesiastical Review



Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America Press, July 1964

Our Holy Mother the Church, which is "the pillar and ground of the truth,"1 has invariably made use of Sacred Scripture in her work of ministering eternal salvation to souls, safeguarding it always from every sort of false interpretation. Problems there will always be, and the Catholic exegete, engaged in expounding the word of God and answering the difficulties brought forward against it, should not lose heart. He must keep on vigorously at his work of bringing out ever more clearly the genuine sense of the Scriptures, not relying merely on his own capabilities, but putting his trust chiefly and unshakably in the help of God and the light shed by the Church.

It is highly gratifying that the Church today can number so many faithful sons, possessed of that proficiency in matters biblical which is required at the present time, who have responded to the call of the Supreme Pontiffs and are devoting themselves wholeheartedly and with unflagging energy to their weighty and exacting task. "And all other children of the Church should bear in mind that the efforts of these valiant laborers in the vineyard of the Lord are to be judged not only with fairness and justice, but also with the greatest charity,"2 for even interpreters of the highest reputation, such as Jerome himself, in their endeavours to clear up certain more difficult points, have on occasion arrived at results which were far from happy.3 All should be on their guard "lest in the heat of debate the limits laid down by mutual charity be transgressed; and lest, in debate, the impression be given that it is the revealed truths and the divine traditions themselves that are being controverted. For unless the various studies of many different scholars are pursued by them together in a spirit of harmony and with the principles themselves placed beyond dispute, we cannot well expect them to accomplish any great progress in this branch of learning."4

Today the labors of exegetes are all the more called for by reason of the fact that in many publications, circulated far and wide, the truth of the events and sayings recorded in the Gospels is being challenged. In view of this the Pontifical Biblical Commission, in the discharge of the duty entrusted to it by the Supreme Pontiffs, has thought it opportune to set forth and to insist on the following points:

1. The Catholic exegete, under the guidance of the Church, must turn to account all the resources for the understanding of the sacred text which have been put at his disposal by previous interpreters, especially the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church, whose labors it is for him to take up and to carry on. In order to bring out with fullest clarity the enduring truth and authority of the Gospels he must, whilst carefully observing the rules of rational and of Catholic hermeneutics, make skilful use of the new aids to exegesis, especially those which the historical method, taken in its widest sense, has provided; that method, namely, which minutely investigates sources, determining their nature and bearing, and availing itself of the findings of textual criticism, literary criticism, and linguistic studies. The interpreter must be alert to the reminder given him by Pope Pius XII of happy memory when he charged him "to make judicious inquiry as to how far the form of expression or the type of literature adopted by the sacred writer may help towards the true and genuine interpretation, and to remain convinced that this part of his task cannot be neglected without great detriment to Catholic exegesis."5 In this reminder Pius XII of happy memory is laying down a general rule of hermeneutics, one by whose help the books both of the Old Testament and of the New are to be explained, since the sacred writers when composing them followed the way of thinking and of writing current amongst their contemporaries. In a word, the exegete must make use of every means which will help him to reach a deeper understanding of the character of the gospel testimony, of the religious life of the first churches, and of the significance and force of the apostolic tradition.

In appropriate cases the interpreter is free to seek out what sound elements there are in "the Method of Form-history," and these he can duly make use of to gain a fuller understanding of the Gospels. He must be circumspect in doing so, however, because the method in question is often found alloyed with principles of a philosophical or theological nature which are quite inadmissable, and which not infrequently vitiate both the method itself and the conclusions arrived at regarding literary questions. For certain exponents of this method, led astray by rationalistic prejudices, refuse to admit that there exists a supernatural order, or that a personal God intervenes in the world by revelation properly so called, or that miracles and prophecies are possible and have actually occurred. There are others who have as their starting-point a wrong notion of faith, taking it that faith is indifferent to historical truth, and is indeed incompatible with it. Others practically deny a priori the historical value and character of the documents of revelation. Others finally there are who on the one hand underestimate the authority which the Apostles had as witnesses of Christ, and the office and influence which they wielded in the primitive community, whilst on the other hand they overestimate the creative capacity of the community itself. All these aberrations are not only opposed to Catholic doctrine, but are also devoid of any scientific foundation, and are foreign to the genuine principles of the historical method.

2. In order to determine correctly the trustworthiness of what is transmitted in the Gospels, the interpreter must take careful note of the three stages of tradition by which the teaching and the life of Jesus have come down to us.

Christ our Lord attached to Himself certain chosen disciples6 who had followed Him from the beginning,7 who had seen His works and had heard His words, and thus were qualified to become witnesses of His life and teaching.8 Our Lord) when expounding His teaching by word of mouth, observed the methods of reasoning and of exposition which were in common use at the time; in this way He accommodated Himself to the mentality of His hearers, and ensured that His teachings would be deeply impressed on their minds and would be easily retained in memory by His disciples. These latter grasped correctly the idea that the miracles and other events of the life of Jesus were things purposely performed or arranged by Him in such a way that men would thereby be led to believe in Christ and to accept by faith the doctrine of salvation.

The Apostles, bearing testimony to Jesus9 proclaimed first and foremost the death and resurrection of the Lord, faithfully recounting His life and words10 and, as regards the manner of their preaching, taking into account the circumstances of their hearers.11 After Jesus had risen from the dead, and when His divinity was clearly perceived,12 the faith of the disciples, far from blotting out the remembrance of the events that had happened, rather consolidated it, since their faith was based on what Jesus had done and taught.13 Nor was Jesus transformed into a "mythical" personage, and His teaching distorted, by reason of the worship which the disciples now paid Him, revering Him as Lord and Son of God. Yet it need not be denied that the Apostles, when handing on to their hearers the things which in actual face the Lord had said and done, did so in the light of that fuller understanding which they enjoyed as a result of being schooled by the glorious things accomplished in Christ,14 and of being illumined by the Spirit of Truth.15 Thus it came about that, just as Jesus Himself after His resurrection had "interpreted to them"16 both the words of the Old Testament and the words which He Himself had spoken,17 so now they in their turn interpreted His words and deeds according to the needs of their hearers. "Devoting (themselves) to the ministry of the word,"18 they made use, as they preached, of such various forms of speech as were adapted to their own purposes and to the mentality of their hearers; for it was "to Greek and barbarian, to learned and simple,"19 that they had a duty to discharge.20 These varied ways of speaking which the heralds of Christ made use of in proclaiming Him must be distinguished one from the other and carefully appraised: catecheses, narratives, testimonies, hymns, doxologies, prayers, and any other such literary forms as were customarily employed in Sacred Scripture and by people of that time.

The sacred authors, for the benefit of the churches, took this earliest body of instruction, which had been handed on orally at first and then in writing— for many soon set their hands to "drawing up a narrative"21 of matters concerning the Lord Jesus—and set it down in the four Gospels. In doing this each of them followed a method suitable to the special purpose which he had in view. They selected certain things out of the many which had been handed on; some they synthesized, some they explained with an eye to the situation of the churches. painstakingly using every means of bringing home to their readers the solid truth of the things in which they had been instructed.22 For, out of the material which they had received, the sacred authors selected especially those items which were adapted to the varied circumstances of the faithful as well as to the end which they themselves wished to attain; these they recounted in a manner consonant with those circumstances and with that end. And since the meaning of a statement depends, amongst other things, on the place which it has in a given sequence, the Evangelists, in handing on the words or the deeds of our Saviour, explained them for the advantage of their readers by respectively setting them, one Evangelist in one context, another in another. For this reason the exegete must ask himself what the Evangelist intended by recounting a saying or a fact in a certain way, or by placing it in a certain context. For the truth of the narrative is not affected in the slightest by the fact that the Evangelists report the sayings or the doings of our Lord in a different order,23 and that they use different words to express what He said, not keeping to the very letter, but nevertheless preserving the sense.24 For, as St. Augustine says: "Where it is a question only of those matters whose order in the narrative may be indifferently this or that without in any way taking from the truth and authority of the Gospel, it is probable enough that each Evangelist believed he should narrate them in that same order in which God was pleased to suggest them to his recollection. The Holy Spirit distributes His gifts to each one according as He wills; 25 therefore, too, for the sake of those Books which were to be set so high at the very summit of authority. He undoubtedly guided and controlled the minds of the holy writers in their recollection of what they were to write; but as to why. in doing so, He should have permitted them, one to follow this order in his narrative, another to follow that—that is a question whose answer may possibly be found with God's help, if one seeks it out with reverent care."26

Unless the exegete, then, pays attention to all those factors which have a bearing on the origin and the composition of the Gospels, and makes due use of the acceptable findings of modern research, he will fail in his duty of ascertaining what the intentions of the sacred writers were, and what it is that they have actually said. The results of recent study have made it clear that the teachings of the life of Jesus were not simply recounted for the mere purpose of being kept in remembrance, but were "preached" in such a way as to furnish the Church with the foundation on which to build up faith and morals. It follows that the interpreter who subjects the testimony of the Evangelists to persevering scrutiny will be in a position to shed further light on the enduring theological value of the Gospels, and to throw into clearest relief the vital importance of the Church's interpretation.

There remain many questions, and these of the gravest moment, in the discussion and elucidation of which the Catholic exegete can and should freely exercise his intelligence and skill. In this way each can contribute individually to the advantage of all, to the constant advancement of sacred learning, to preparing the ground and providing further support for the decisions of the Church's teaching authority, and to the defence and honour of the Church herself.27 But at all times the interpreter must cherish a spirit of ready obedience to the Church's teaching authority, and must also bear in mind that when the Apostles proclaimed the Good Tidings they were filled with the Holy Spirit, that the Gospels were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and that it was He Who preserved their authors immune from all error. "For we received our knowledge of the economy of our salvation by means of no others than those same by whose means the Gospel came to us: that Gospel which they first proclaimed as heralds and afterwards, by the will of God, passed on to us in the Scriptures to be the ground and pillar of our faith. Thus no one has any right to say that they preached before they had the perfect Knowledge, as some venture to assert, boasting that they are correctors of the Apostles. For after our Lord had risen from the dead and they were invested with power from on high by the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them, they were filled with all the gifts, and had the perfect Knowledge; they went forth to the ends of the earth spreading the good tidings of the blessings we have from God and announcing heavenly peace to men, all of them and each of them equally possessing the Gospel of God."28

3. Those charged with the duty of teaching in Seminaries and similar establishments "must make it their first care to see . . . that the teaching of Holy Writ is carried out in a manner thoroughly in keeping with the importance of the subject itself, and with the requirements of the present day."29 Professors should make theological doctrine the main subject-matter of their exposition, so that the Sacred Scriptures "may become for the future priests of the Church a pure and never-failing source of spiritual life for themselves, and of nourishment and vigour for the office of sacred preaching which they are to undertake."30 Professors, when they make use of critical methods, especially of what is called literary criticism, should not do so for the mere sake of criticism, but with a view to gaining by means of it a deeper insight into the sense intended by God speaking through the sacred writer. They should not stop halfway, therefore, resting on the discoveries they have made from the literary point of view, but should go on to show how such findings make a real contribution towards the better understanding of revealed doctrine or, if occasion arises, towards the refutation of misleading views. By following these guiding principles teachers will ensure that their pupils find in Sacred Scripture themes of a nature "to raise their minds to God, nourish their souls, and foster their interior life."31

4. But it is those who instruct the Christian people by sacred preaching who need the greatest prudence. It is doctrine above all that they must impart, mindful of the admonition of St. Paul: "Pay attention to yourself and to the doctrine which you teach; be persistent in these things. For by doing so you will bring salvation to yourself and to your hearers."32 They must altogether shun what is merely newfangled or what is insufficiently proved. New views for which there is solid support they may when necessary put forward, using discretion and taking into account the qualifications of their audience. When they narrate biblical events they are not to introduce imaginary additions at variance with the truth.

This same virtue of prudence should be especially practiced by those who write for the Christian public at the popular level. They should make it their study to bring out the treasures of the word of God "in order that the faithful may be moved and spurred on to shape their lives in conformity with it."33 Let them regard themselves as in duty bound never to depart in the slightest from the common doctrine and tradition of the Church. And whilst undoubtedly they should lay under contribution whatever real advances in biblical knowledge the labours of modern scholars have brought about, they should keep altogether clear of the precarious fancies of innovators.34 They are strictly charged not to yield to a mischievous itch for novelty by recklessly giving wide publicity, indiscriminately and without any previous sifting, to each and every tentative solution of difficulties that happens to be proposed; this way of acting disquiets the faith of many people.

Already on a previous occasion this Pontifical Biblical Commission thought it opportune to recall to mind that books, and also magazine and newspaper articles, dealing with biblical matters, are subject to the authority and jurisdiction of Ordinaries, since they are concerned with religious topics and with the religious instruction of the faithful.35 Ordinaries are requested, therefore, to be particularly vigilant where such popular publications are concerned.

5. Those in charge of biblical associations must observe inviolably the laws already laid down by the Pontifical Biblical Commission.36

If all these instructions are kept, the study of the Sacred Scriptures will redound to the advantage of the faithful. All without exception will experience even today the truth of what St. Paul wrote: that the Sacred Scriptures "can make wise unto salvation, which is had by faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture inspired by God is profitable for teaching, for reproving, for correcting, for training in right conduct : so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."37

Our Most Holy Lord, Pope Paul VI, in an audience graciously granted to the undersigned Most Reverend Consultor-Secretary on April 21, 1964, approved this Instruction and ordered its publication.

Rome, April 21, 1964

Benjamin N. Wambacq, O. Praem., Consultor-Secretary

* This Instruction, De Historica Evangeliorum Veritate, is published in accordance with the will of His Holiness Pope Paul VI. It is the official English translation issued from the Pontifical Biblical Commission.


1 I Tim. 3, 15.

2 Divino afflante Spiritu; Enchiridion Biblicum; EB 564.

3 Cf. Spiritus Paraclitus; EB 451.

4 Litt. Apost. Vigilantiae; EB 143.

5 Divino afflante Spiritu; EB 560.

6 Cf. Mc. 3, 14; Lc. 6, 13.

7 Cf. Lc. 1, 2; Act. 1, 21-22.

8 Cf. Lc. 24, 48; Jn. 15, 27; Act. 1, 8; 10, 39; 12, 31.

9 Cf. Lc. 24, 44-48; Act. 2, 32; 3, 15; 5, 30-32.

10 Cf. Act. 10, 36-41.

11 Cf. Act. 13, 16-41 with Act. 17, 22-31.

12 Act. 2, 36; Jn. 20, 28.

13 Act. 2, 22; 10, 37-39.

14 Jn. 2, 22; 12, 16; 11, 51-52; cf. 14, 26; 16, 12-13; 7, 39.

15 Cf. Jn. 14, 26; 16, 13.

16 Lc. 24, 27.

17 Cf. Lc. 24, 44-45; Act. 1, 3.

18 Act. 6, 4.

19 Rom. 1, 14.

20 I Cor. 9, 19-23.

21 Cf. Lc. 1, 1.

22 Cf. Lc. 1, 4.

23 Cf. St. John Chrys., In Mat. Hom. I, 3; PG 57, 16-17.

24 Cf. St. August., De consensu Evang. 2, 12, 28; PL 34, 1090-1091.

25 I Cor. 12, 11.

26 De consensu Evang., 2, 21, 51 s.; PL 34, 1102.

27 Cf. Divino afflante Spiritu; EB 565.

28 St. Iren., Adv. Haer., III, 1, 1; Harvey, II, 2; PG 7, 844.

29 Litt. Apost. Quoniam in re biblica; EB 162.

30 Divino afflante Spiritu; EB 567.

31 Divino afflante Spiritu; EB 552.

32 I Tim. 4, 16.

33 Divino afflante Spiritu; EB 566.

34 Cf. Litt. Apost. Quoniam in re biblica; EB 175.

35 Instructio ad Exc. mos locorum Ordinarios . . . 15 dec. 1955; EB 626.

36 EB 622-633.

37 II Tim. 3, 15-17.

© The American Ecclesiastical Review, The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C.

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