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Pontifical Biblical Commission: Yesterday And Today

by John F. McCarthy


An overview of the history, status and function of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, in the context of changing principles of interpretation.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


8 - 13

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, January 2003

The Pontifical Biblical Commission was established by Pope Leo XIII on October 30, 1902, in order that the text of Sacred Scripture "will find here and from every quarter the most thorough interpretation which is demanded by our times and be shielded, not only from every breath of error, but also from every temerarious opinion" (Enchiridion Biblicum 139). The members of the Commission were given as a goal "that Catholics should not admit the malignant principle of granting more than is due to the opinion of heterodox writers, and of thinking that the true understanding of the Scriptures should be sought first of all in the researches which the erudition of unbelievers has arrived at" (EB 141). At the same time the Pope allowed that "there may arise an occasion when the Catholic interpreter may find some assistance in authors outside the Church, especially in matters of criticism, but here there is need of prudence and discernment" (EB 142).

The approach to the text of Sacred Scripture known as historical criticism began as far back as 1678, when Richard Simon, a Catholic priest, published a "critical history" of the Old Testament (placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1682). This critical approach was taken up and fostered throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by liberal Protestant exegetes. In the late nineteenth century the assumption was firmly in place among these liberal scholars that the early chapters of the Book of Genesis were little more than a concatenation of myths and legends, and the search was under way for the history behind the fiction. By 1895 Hermann Gunkel had initiated the method known in English as "form-criticism" (Formgeschichte, literally, "form-history"), which he institutionalized in 1901 with his monumental critique of the Book of Genesis. The theory behind the method was that the Book of Genesis is made up of "literary forms," that is, forms of creative religious fiction, whose understanding requires finding how each of them arose and developed. In 1897 the Dominican scholar Father Mane-Joseph Lagrange, founder of the Ecole Biblique of Jerusalem, in an address to Catholic intellectuals in Fribourg, Switzerland, proposed the acceptance of the historical-critical method by Catholic exegetes, and in 1903 he published a book on historical criticism of the Old Testament1 in which he attempted to show "how the historical-critical method could be used in biblical interpretation without any detriment to Christian faith and Catholic life."2 From then on a certain fascination for the historical-critical method began to take hold among Catholic biblical scholars.

Between 1905 and 1915 the Pontifical Biblical Commission emitted fifty-nine authoritative replies regarding certain doubts raised by historical critics. Among other things the Commission in 1905 denied that "those books of Sacred Scripture which are regarded as historical, either wholly or in part, sometimes narrate what is not history properly so-called and objectively true, but only have the appearance of history and are intended to convey a meaning different from the strictly literal or historical sense of the words" (EB 161). In 1909 it excluded that "the various exegetical systems which have been elaborated and defended by the aid of pseudo-science to exclude the literal historical sense of the first three chapters of Genesis are based upon solid arguments" (EB 324). And also in 1909 it denied that "the three aforesaid chapters . . . contain [purified] fables derived from mythologies and cosmologies belonging to older nations . . . ; or that they contain allegories and symbols destitute of any foundation in objective reality but presented under the garb of history to inculcate religious and philosophical truth; or, finally, that they contain legends partly historical and partly fictitious, freely handled for the instruction and edification of souls" (EB 325).

These and other responses of the PBC "became the source of a long and at times bitter controversy whose final resolution would require [historical-critical] Catholic exegetes to exercise the very best of their skills in interpreting the meaning and authority of ecclesiastical documents."3 The PBC was perceived to be striving to refute and suppress the work of a growing number of Catholic historical critics "whose use of new scientific methods of exegesis often occasioned critiques of the Church's traditional teaching about the inspired and inerrant character of the biblical texts and the circumstances of their composition."4

Modernism arose as a spin-off from the historical criticism of the 1890s. Like every other form of rationalism, it begins from the assumption that, since there are no real nature-miracles, true prophecies, divine inspiration, or divine interventions of any kind, "modern scientific man" must regard any such things reported in the Bible as fictitious. But modernism goes on to assume that all religious ideas arise from a religious instinct active in the subjective imagination of pre-scientific man, some of which eventually get formulated into dogmas. Hence, it becomes the task of "modern scientific man" to purge religious faith of these fanciful ideas.

Shortly after the First World War, Rudolf Bultmann, a thoroughgoing modernist who was on his way to becoming the most influential Scripture scholar of the twentieth century, initiated, in conjunction with Martin Dibelius and two other Protestant historical critics, the "form-criticism of the New Testament." Bultmann's History of the Synoptic Tradition, first published in German in 1921, seemed to provide highly systematic scientific arguments that deprived the Synoptic Gospels of virtually all historical truth, leaving Jesus of Nazareth as a deluded Jew who did live and preach in Palestine and was crucified there, but who never worked any miracles or rose from the dead except in the imagination of his followers. Beginning from the assumption that the Synoptic Gospels are works of religious fantasy made up of small units that the form-critic can distinguish and whose origin in the Christian imagination he can trace, Bultmann analyzed the text into different form-critical literary forms, such as legends, miracle-stories, I-sayings of Jesus, controversy dialogues, biographical apophthegms, wisdom-sayings, prophetic sayings, and the Myth of Christ.

Bultmann's vaunted shredding of the Synoptic Gospels seems to have overawed the Catholic historical critics of the time. A period of silence about this work ensued for a quarter of a century. Then, shortly after the Second World War, articles and books about Rudolf Bultmann written by Catholics began to appear. Some of these writers attacked the existentialist presuppositions of Bultmann's theology, while others presented examples of Bultmann's exegetical method and conclusions with virtually no critique except merely to point out at the end that some of Bultmann's conclusions were unacceptable to Catholic teaching. It is a certain fascination with the seemingly scientific nature of Bultmann's arguments, coupled with a pronounced inability to refute them, that characterizes more than anything else these post-War writings.

The publication of Pius XII's encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943, according to historical critics, "initiated a dramatic shift in the Catholic Church's estimation of biblical studies" and "gave a clear endorsement of the methods of historical criticism, the legitimacy of which the Church, up until this time, had been reluctant to accept."5 Actually, there seems to have been no endorsement of the methods of historical criticism in Divino Afflante Spiritu. The encyclical endorsed present-day methods of sound historical research, but it did not endorse the form-criticism founded by Hermann Gunkel, Martin Dibeliusand Rudolf Bultmann, as it was being followed at the time by many Catholic historical-critical scholars. Pope Pius XII took occasion, in the publication in 1950 of his encyclical Humani Generis, to point out that some Catholic biblical scholars were wrongly interpreting what he had said in Divino Afflante Spiritu about the historical approach to Sacred Scripture and were trying to reduce the immunity from error of the Bible to a "divine sense" that they were claiming lies below the alleged errors of the "human sense" (EB 612-614). Hence, it is clear that Divino Afflante Spiritu did not endorse the historical-critical method, but it did, nevertheless, extend a greater atmosphere of freedom for Catholic biblical scholars to conduct and publish their research, and the encyclical did say that the biblical writers used "kinds of speech" different from those used in our time, although the literary genres into which Divino Afflante Spiritu divides these forms of expression are the same as those defined by the Fathers of the Church, the legal, the historical, and the poetic (EB 558-559), rather than the novel forms used by form-critics.

About twenty-one years later, the PBC, in its instruction of 1964 On the Historical Truth of the Gospels, endorsed a certain emphasis upon the development of the Gospel tradition in three stages: the experiencing by the Apostles of the words and deeds of Jesus; the Apostolic preaching and testimony after the death and resurrection of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Spirit; and the written composition of the Gospels from material contained in the Apostolic preaching. But in this instruction the PBC did not endorse the form-critical method initiated by Gunkel, Dibelius and Bultmann. What it said rather was the following: "It is permitted to the interpreter where appropriate to look into whatever sound elements there may be in the form-critical method [methodo historiae formarum, literally, "form-history method"] in order to make use of a fuller understanding of the Gospels. But let him do so cautiously, because often mixed into this method there are unacceptable philosophical and theological principles, which frequently spoil both the method and its literary conclusions. For some advocates of this method, swayed by rationalistic presuppositions, refuse to acknowledge the existence of the supernatural order and the intervention of a personal God in the world, effected by means of revelation properly so called, (and) the possibility and existence of miracles and prophecies. Others proceed from a false notion of faith, as though faith were not concerned with historical truth and, indeed, were not compatible with it. Others deny in advance, as it were, the historical value and character of the documents of revelation. And others, finally, disparaging the authority of the Apostles as witnesses of Christ and their role and influence in the pristine community, exaggerate the creative power of this community. All of these things are not only opposed to Catholic doctrine but also lack scientific basis and are removed from the correct principles of historical method" (EB 647).

The historical critics eventually won the long and at times bitter fight for the ear of the hierarchy over the contested Replies of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and the reason for this victory seems to have been a tactical error in the approach of the traditional Catholic exegetes who opposed them. Many of these traditional exegetes were able scholars, but they pitched their arguments against the historical critics more in terms of the questionable orthodoxy of the presuppositions and logical results of the form-critical method than by analyzing in detail and refuting the technical procedures of the method itself. On the other hand, Catholic historical critics were using the form-critical method usually without adverting to its questionable presuppositions and often without drawing the seemingly obvious implications of their reasonings that might be construed as undermining belief in the historical truth of the inspired text. This lack of focus in the debate is what made the controversy so bitter at times.

By the time of the Second Vatican Council many members of the hierarchy were expressing the desire that the PBC be reformed. It was, in fact, restructured by Pope Paul VI in 1971 to the effect that it became no longer an organ of the teaching Church, but rather "a commission of scholars who, in their scientific and ecclesial responsibility as believing exegetes, take positions on important problems of scriptural interpretation and know that for this task they enjoy the confidence of the teaching office."6 The PBC now tends to be composed mainly, if not exclusively, of historical critics.

In 1993 the reconstituted PBC published a document entitled The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.7 In this document the PBC fully endorsed the historical-critical method as "the indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts."8 Nevertheless, as the Commission pointed out in the Introduction to this document, "at the very time when the most prevalent scientific method — the 9 historical-critical method' — is freely practiced in exegesis, it is itself brought into question, to some extent through the rise of 'alternative approaches and methods,'" but also " through the criticisms of many members of the faithful, who judge the method deficient from the point of view of faith," some of whom maintain that "nothing is gained by submitting biblical texts to the demands of scientific method," and who insist that "the result of scientific exegesis is only to provoke perplexity and doubt upon numerous points which hitherto had been accepted without difficulty."

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, ex officio President of the PBC, in his Preface to the 1993 document, said that he believed that it would be "very helpful for the important questions about the right way of understanding Holy Scripture" and that it "takes up the paths of the encyclicals of 1893 and 1943 and advances them in a fruitful way." But he also spoke in this same Preface about "new attempts to recover patristic exegesis and to include renewed forms of a spiritual interpretation of Scripture." In fact, already in an article published in 19899 Cardinal Ratzinger had called for "a better synthesis between historical and theological methods, between criticism and dogma" and for self-criticism by exegetes of the historical-critical method. He said that errors made in biblical exegesis over the preceding century "have virtually become academic dogmas," especially due to the influence of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann, whose "basic methodological approaches continue even today to determine the methods and procedures of modern exegesis,"10 and he saw the urgent need to challenge the fundamental ideas of this method.11 The Cardinal pointed out that Bultmann the exegete "represents a background consensus of the scientific exegesis dominant today," even though Bultmann's exegetical conclusions "are not the result of historical findings, but emerge from a framework of systematic presuppositions." And so the Cardinal called for "a new and thorough reflection on exegetical method," for which task "(t)he great outlines of patristic and medieval thought must also be brought into the discussion."12

An updated recovery of patristic exegesis is emerging in the form of the neopatristic method of interpretation of Sacred Scripture.13 The neopatristic method is based upon the method of the Fathers of the Church updated to include more recent discoveries and techniques of sound historical science. It employs the framework of the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture as recommended by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 115-119), combining faith and dogma with new exegetical techniques in what is hoped to become a better approach to Sacred Scripture than what is offered today by historical criticism. It criticizes the historical-critical method in order to discard false assumptions and techniques and to find new answers in the process. It takes up at last the challenges still unanswered in the form-critical works of Gunkel, Dibelius, Bultmann, and others through a systematic analysis of their reasoning and the overturning of their false conclusions. It begins from better definitions of historical science and historical method. If a sufficient number of scholars will take up and develop the neopatristic method, there is hope that the twenty-first century will be, not only the century of a return to the biblical insights of the Fathers of the Church and of Catholic exegetical tradition, but also the century of advance to a more scientific and satisfying form of biblical interpretation than that which is afforded today by the method of historical criticism.

Msgr. John F. McCarthy is a priest of the Diocese of Helena, Montana, on loan as pastor to St. Wenceslaus Parish in Eastman, Wisconsin. He is the Founder and Director General of the Society of the Oblates of Wisdom. He taught Canon Law at the Lateran University in Rome, and was an official for many years at the Congregation for the Oriental Churches in the Roman Curia. He is the author of the Science of Historical Theology (1976) and many articles in the newsletter "Living Tradition " (available on the Internet at


1 M-J. Lagrange, La methode historique surtout a propos de l'Ancien Testament (Paris, 1903). This work appeared in English two years later under the title Historical Criticism and the Old Testament (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1905). In this celebrated work, Father Lagrange followed the method of Hermann Gunkel uncritically in that he did not undertake the preliminary task of determining from an analytical point of view what is history, and, therefore, what exactly is historical method. In this regard it is interesting to note that, in the title of the English translation of Father Lagrange's work, the translator dropped the expression "historical method."

2 J.A. Fitzmyer, The Biblical Commission's Document "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" (Pontifical Biblical Institute: Rome, 1995), p.154.

3 Dean Bechard, "Remnants of Modernism in a Postmodern Age," in America, February 4, 2002, p. 16.

4 Bechard, p. 17.

5 Bechard, pp. 18-19.

6 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Preface to the PBC document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.

7 Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993).

8 PBC, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, opening words of chapter 1.

9 J. Card. Ratzinger, "Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today," in R. J. Neuhaus, ed., Biblical Interpretation in Crisis (William B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1989), pp. 1-23 (originally delivered as an Erasmus Lecture at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in New York City on 27 January 1988).

10 Ratzinger, Biblical Interpretation in Crisis, p. 9.

11 Ratzinger, ibid.,pp. 10-16.

12 Ratzinger, ibid., pp. 21-23,

13 For examples of the use of the neopatristic method, see the archive of Living Tradition articles on the Web site of the Roman Theological Forum at .

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