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The Church and the Bible: A New Understanding

About this article

How the Catholic Church approaches the study of the Bible has changed in the last one hundred years. This informative article begins with the end of the 19th century, moves through the early 1900's, and discusses Pope Pius XII's encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. Considering how the Second Vatican Council affected biblical studies, the article ends by discussing the new challenges ahead.

The Catholic Church's attitude toward biblical study has undergone a sea of change in recent times. A world-renowned Scripture scholar explains why and how.

Very often when older Catholics hear at Mass a presentation about the Bible they are puzzled. In their youth they were probably never encouraged to read the Bible, and what is now being said about biblical stories (for instance, about Adam and Eve) bears little resemblance to what they heard when they were growing up. A similar confusion sometimes occurs when youngsters come home and report to their parents what they were taught about the Bible in religion class. The parents wonder whether this can be correct.

A simple answer to part of the confusion is that in the mid-20th century the Catholic Church drastically changed its position on the Scriptures. It did so because it saw how new methods greatly increased the understanding of the Bible and made its wealth more accessible and spiritually helpful. A brief survey of the history of the change provides a background for understanding it.

The End of the 19th Century:
Ancient Manuscripts, New Methods

Our story begins in the last quarter of the 19th century, which was a very active period in the study of the Bible. The movement to submit the scriptural books to the same kind of historical and literary analysis as other ancient literature had been gaining force in Protestant circles, especially in Germany. It was now leading to solutions startlingly different from those held in the tradition. For instance, the Pentateuchal section of the Old Testament (the first five books) had been attributed to Moses by both Christians and Jews. In the 1870's and 1880's, however, a famous scholar, Julius Wellhausen, argued that these books were composed from four documents written 400–800 years after Moses.

Discoveries of Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian writings suggested that some biblical stories (like that of the flood), law codes and collections of wisdom had been borrowed from other nations. Anglican scholars, recognizing that the King James translation of the New Testament had been based on an inferior Greek manuscript tradition, used ancient manuscripts to print a superior Greek version on which new English translations were subsequently based.

We are accustomed today to receive encyclicals from the pope or directives from Vatican offices on controversial questions. But that was not always so. This ferment about new biblical methods and discoveries brought the papacy for the first time directly into Catholic discussions of the Bible with the encyclical Providentissimus Deus of Pope Leo XIII (1893).

Personally a very learned man, the pope recognized the value of some scholarly advances and spoke with considerable nuance about the situation. Nevertheless, he insisted on the Latin version (not the original Greek or Hebrew) as a basis of translation and on the traditional interpretations of scriptural passages. Happily, his encyclical spared Catholics a problem that would trouble many pious Protestants in relation to human evolution. It pointed out that the biblical authors, who shared the "scientific" views of their times, do not teach answers to problems raised by the natural sciences of our times.

The Early 20th Century:
Cautious Conservatism

On the academic scene, the turn of the century and the early 1900's saw among scholars an even more rapid acceptance of modern approaches to the Bible, often with a radical twist. Many scholars were saying that the Bible was not simply a history. For some, that meant calling into doubt the truth of important biblical affirmations like God's creation of the world, miracles, the divinity of Jesus, the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and so on. Recognizing that the Judeo-Christian faith was being undermined, conservative Protestants in the United States banded together to protect "the fundamentals" by insisting on the literal historicity of everything described in the Scriptures--whence the name "fundamentalism. "

About the same time (more precisely, between 1905 and 1915), fearing that the radical Protestant scholarship would make its way into Catholic circles, the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a series of cautionary, conservative decrees rejecting most of the positions taken by contemporary Protestant academics. The Commission affirmed that Moses was substantially the author of the Pentateuch; Isaiah was one book; essentially, Matthew wrote the first Gospel and the apostle John the fourth; Paul wrote the Letters to Timothy and Titus. In the 1920's the Vatican Holy Office took vigorous action against any Catholic deviations from traditional positions on the Bible. These directives shaped textbooks and classroom teaching for decades to come (and that means what many of us were taught in classes dealing with Bible stories in Catholic grammar schools).

Thus, for the first third of the 20th century one may speak of three trends in biblical interpretation. At most major Protestant divinity schools (universities and seminaries) the professors, recognizing the very real problems detected by modern historical and literary methods, advocated an approach that called into question the traditional authorship of the biblical books and recognized that many of them were far from exact histories of what they described.

Fundamentalist and evangelist preachers and Bible colleges, in varying ways, contradicted such an approach by insisting on the literal inerrancy of the Scriptures. Catholics, a third and isolated group ignored by both Protestant camps, held onto the traditional Christian doctrines by absolute fidelity to the positions inculcated by the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

From 1940 to 1965:
Period of Change

Suddenly, in the 1940's during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, the Catholic position changed. Here was a pope whose personal experience showed how wonderfully enriching Bible reading could be for the spiritual life. Change was now opportune because the mainstream of scholarly Protestant research had shifted back toward the center, as radical positions were challenged by recent discoveries. For instance, the view that John's Gospel was written about 175 a.d. had been shown untenable by the dating of a small papyrus fragment of that Gospel to about 135, so that the traditional assignment of the composition of the Gospel to the 90's again became likely. Clay tablets discovered at Ugarit in Syria revealed a Canaanite language akin to Hebrew and suggested to scholars that some Old Testament poetry should be dated before 1000 b.c., thus contradicting the late dating proposed by Wellhausen.

Consequently, in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), Pius XII judged that it was safe for Catholic scholars to take up the methods that were previously forbidden. Translations from the original Hebrew and Greek were now encouraged. A particular aspect of the encyclical definitively steered Catholics away from fundamentalism: namely, the recognition that the Bible includes many different literary forms or genres, not just history.

One might exemplify this by thinking of the Bible as the library both of ancient Israel and of the early Church, containing different kinds of history, poetry, drama, dramatized parables and so on. It is a bad mistake to wander into a modern library, pick up a historical novel or a play and read it as if it were exact history--the kind of mistake that literalists tend to make in dealing with the biblical books.

After the end of the Second World War, Divino Afflante Spiritu sparked an enormous growth in Catholic biblical scholarship. New teachers were trained, and the results of the changed approach to the Scriptures were gradually communicated to the people--the very steps the pope had urged.

A statement of the Pontifical Biblical Commission to Cardinal Shard of Paris in 1948 documented a change in Church attitudes toward the Pentateuch. Rather than being composed at one time by Moses, these first Old Testament books were composed from sources and developed in the course of history. While the early chapters of Genesis (including the Adam and Eve story) relate fundamental truths, they do so in figurative language and do not contain history in a modern sense.

By 1955 the secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission could declare that now Catholic scholars had complete liberty with regard to the 1905–1915 decrees of that Commission except where they touched on faith and morals (and very few of them did). This meant that Catholic scholars were free to adopt positions of authorship and dating that other Christians had come to hold under the pressure of evidence.

A crucial moment occurred at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Pius XII had died, and it soon became evident that not everyone in Rome approved of the biblical changes he had introduced. The preliminary document on the sources of revelation, sent out by the Holy Office before the Council as a basis for discussion, appealed to positions taken in the early 1900's and would have turned the clock back. This document was rejected by nearly two thirds of the Council participants and sent back by Pope John XXIII for thorough rewriting.

As part of the rewriting, the important "The Historical Truth of the Gospels"--Instruction of the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission (1964) became the basis of the final Vatican II document pertinent to Scripture (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, promulgated in 1965). The Commission held that the Gospels, while retaining the sense of the sayings of Jesus, were not necessarily expressing them literally. The truth and historicity of the Gospels must be judged from the fact that the doctrine and life of Jesus were not reported for the purpose of being remembered but were preached so as to offer the Church a basis of faith and morals.

This Biblical Commission approach, which steers Catholics away from a literalist approach to the Gospels, was fortified by Vatican II's position on inerrancy: "The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation" (Divine Revelation, #11). That is a far cry from assuming that every statement in Scripture has to be literally accurate.

From 1965 Till Today:
Consolidation and New Challenges

In the last third of the century, since the end of the Second Vatican Council, Church needs have shaped developments in the Catholic approach to the Bible. A new set of liturgical books provided three years of Sunday Mass readings, involving not only the Old Testament (a most important innovation) but almost the complete texts of Mark, Matthew and Luke, each one for a year (John is read every year, mostly in the Lenten and Easter seasons).

That method of not mixing passages from one Gospel with those from another reflects the view that each evangelist had his own theology and viewpoint that guided not only what he narrated but also how he did so. For liturgical purposes, translations from the original languages were made into the vernacular languages of the world--translations done according to modern standards of scholarship.

The Vatican Council had encouraged ecumenical relations, and Catholic and Protestant biblical specialists started to work together on some of these translations, as well as on sensitive issues that divided the Churches (like the biblical presentation of Peter and of Mary). Academics from the different confessions began to teach on the others' university and seminary faculties, for Catholic biblical scholarship and middle-of-the-road Protestant scholarship could agree on the meaning of much of the Scriptures. Within a remarkably short time Catholic scholarly production had reached equality in the eyes of all.

Where are we today? Inevitably, there are both encouraging and discouraging factors. Fortunately, Catholic biblical scholarship has remained remarkably untroubled in its relationship to Church authority, and directives from Rome have remained positive. The decline in the number of Catholic clergy means that in the foreseeable future lay biblical scholars will become a majority on the Catholic scene. That can be very helpful in terms of new endeavor and perspective, but some of them will not have the general background in theology and Church history given to priests in the seminary. There may be difficulties in combining the scientific and the pastoral aspects of scriptural presentation.

The general biblical scene is complicated. The historical analysis so prominent at the beginning of the 19th century has remained important, but new methods of analysis have come into prominence. Indeed, in 1993 the Pontifical Biblical Commission produced a document stressing how these approaches could be complementary--a salutary reaction to a tendency to make one or the other the only important way to read Scripture.

New discoveries have also produced mixed benefits. The Dead Sea Scrolls, uncovered in Palestine beginning in 1947, are very helpful in supplying information on the text of the Hebrew Bible, on noncanonical biblical books and on the theology of a group of Jews who flourished from the second century b.c. to the first century a.d. The delay in publishing some fragments, however, has fueled bizarre conspiracy theories about the suppression of damaging facts and fantastic claims that Christian leaders are described figuratively in the scrolls.

In 1945 a library of Coptic documents stemming from the fourth century a.d. was discovered in Egypt. Many of them exhibit a Gnostic vein of thought regarded as heretical by the Church Fathers. Some were translated from earlier Greek originals, and a number of radical scholars would exalt them as more original than our canonical New Testament.

Radio and TV often complicate a balanced approach to such issues. On the one hand, particularly in the southern and southwestern United States, fundamentalist and literalist preachers occupy a good deal of media time defending the word-for-word historicity of the Bible and issuing predictions based on the misunderstanding that Daniel and Revelation are exact prophecies of the future. They reject much modern Catholic and centrist Protestant exegesis.

On the other hand, hypotheses based on little evidence (such as some of those promoted by the Jesus Seminar) propose extravagant reinterpretations of Christian origins and are presented in the media as the latest scholarship. It is difficult to find on the radio or TV a presentation of the centrist approach to Scripture, which is actually the most commonly taught and held. Fortunately, a good number of books, Catholic and Protestant, embody that approach.

Perhaps the most encouraging element in the present Catholic picture is the number of people interested in the Bible. One hundred years ago it was almost axiomatic that Catholics did not read the Bible; the 20th century has changed that picture dramatically.

Raymond E. Brown, a Sulpician priest, is Auburn Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. He has twice been appointed a member of the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission, by Pope Paul VI in 1972 and by Pope John Paul 11 in 1996. He has published extensively in the area of biblical criticism.


© Copyright St. Anthony Messenger Press. This article was published with the permission of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, which provides study guides to accompany many of its articles. You can access these guides by going to the magazine's Links for Learners page. Teachers will find a wealth of other resources at the St. Anthony Messenger Press web site by clicking on this link: http://www.americancatholic.org/features/learners/

Published November 1, 1996.