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Historicity of the Bible

by

Edith Black

In his book, The Birth of the Messiah Father Raymond Brown presents the results of his research on the infancy narratives of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. He argues that the infancy narratives constitute later additions to the accounts of Jesus' public ministry and that most of the events they relate are not historical. Father Brown's denial of the historicity of the narratives upon which the Church bases her constant teaching that Christ was born of a Virgin seems an astonishing conclusion for such a noted Catholic exegete to reach. Yet his conclusion follows naturally from the premises on which his exegesis is based premises I find incompatible with those underlying traditional Catholic exegesis.

This article will examine the exegetical principles underlying his arguments against the historicity of the infancy narratives in the summarizing introductory chapter of his book to show how they conflict with the exegetical norms laid down by recent Magisterial documents. These documents, particularly Pope Leo XIII's Providentissimus Deus and Pope Pius XII's Divino Afflante Spiritu, summarize centuries of Catholic exegetical wisdom and should function as normative guides for contemporary Biblical research.

Over-reliance Upon the Modern Historical Method

In the introductory chapter of his book, Father Brown gives four main arguments against the historicity of the infancy narratives. First he claims that the evangelist's failure to cite "corroborating witnesses" as sources cast doubt upon the historical value of the narratives.

The main body of Gospel material has a claim to be anchored in the reminiscences of those who accompanied Jesus from shortly after his baptism until his death (see Acts 1:23) and to whom he appeared after his resurrection (Acts 10:1; Cor. 15:3) . . . But how do we know what happened at Jesus' birth? Certainly none of the apostolic preachers of the Jerusalem Community who accompanied Jesus during his ministry and whose tradition is at the basis of the Gospel stories of his ministry . . . was present at the birth . . . Indeed, the body of the Gospel shows that the people among whom Jesus had been reared know nothing about an extraordinary infancy. (Matthew 13:53-58: Luke 4:31-32. 36-37). A common guess has been that the tradition about Jesus' infancy came from Joseph or Mary. Yet Joseph never appears during the ministry of Jesus and seems almost certainly to have been dead by that time, so that it is really pure speculation to posit him as a source. Mary does not seem to have been close to the disciples of Jesus during the ministry (Mark 3:31-35: Matt 12:46-50: John 2:4) although there is New Testament evidence that she was part of the post-resurrectional community (Acts 1:14) while there is no a priori impossibility that she was the source of the material in the Lucan infancy narrative which describes experiences for which she would be the most plausible witness, there is an a priori unlikelihood that she was the source for the material in the Matthean infancy narrative which centers upon Joseph and in which she figures only on a secondary level. In the second century James the "brother of the Lord" who lived into the 60's. was thought to be a plausible source for information about Jesus' infancy, but the resultant Protoevangelium of James is highly legendary, makes elementary mistakes about Temple procedure, and is more obviously folkloric than the canonical infancy narratives. All this means that, in fact, we have no real knowledge that any or all of the infancy material came from a tradition for which there was a corroborating witness. (p. 23) (emphasis added)

Thus Father Brown assumes that we must know the sources of Matthew's and Luke's information on the events surrounding the birth of Jesus to be certain of their historicity. Yet he rejects for specious reasons what Christian common sense has always supposed that Mary was the source.

Secondly, Father Brown argues from the failure of one infancy narrative to duplicate events described in the others. After listing the points the two narratives have in common (pp. 34-35) he states:

The rest of the Matthean infancy narrative is quite different from Luke's infancy narrative. The genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17 is very unlike the genealogy that Luke has placed outside the infancy genealogy story (3:23-38). The whole of Matthew 2:2-22 has no parallel in Luke, just as most of Luke 1 (outside 1:26-33) and most of Luke 2 has no parallel in Matthew. The Lucan account alone depicts the following: the story of Elizabeth. Zechariah. and the birth of John the Baptist: the census which brings Joseph to Bethlehem: the acclamation of Jesus by the shepherds: the presentation of Jesus in the temple as the parents return to Nazareth: and the loss and finding of Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve. Matthew concentrates on additional series of happenings of which Luke makes no mention: the star, the magi, Herod's plot against Jesus, the massacre of the children at Bethlehem, and the flight into Egypt. (p. 35) (emphasis added)

Thirdly, Father Brown claims that discrepancies between the two narratives in chronological and geographic detail indicate a lack of historical accuracy:

This leads us to the observation that the two narratives are not only different they are contrary to each other in a number of details. According to Luke 1:26 and 2:39 Mary lives in Nazareth, and so the census of Augustus is invoked to explain how the child was born in Bethlehem, for Joseph and Mary are in a house at Bethlehem where seemingly Jesus was born (2:11). The only journey that Matthew has to explain is why the family went to Nazareth when the came from Egypt instead of returning to their native Bethlehem (2:22-23). A second difficulty is that Luke tells us that the family returned peaceably to Nazareth after the birth at Bethlehem (2:22, 39); this is irreconcilable with Matthew's implication (2:16) that the child was almost two years old when the family fled from Bethlehem to Egypt and even older when the family came back from Egypt and moved to Nazareth. Of the options mentioned before we made the detailed comparison of the two narratives, one must be ruled out, i.e., that both accounts are completely historical. (p. 36) (emphasis added)

Fourthly Father Brown argues that the lack of extra-Biblical verification for some of the extraordinary public events described in the infancy narratives indicates their non-historical character:

Indeed close analysis of the infancy narratives makes it unlikely that either account is completely historical. Matthew's account contains a number of extraordinary or miraculous public events that, were they factual should have left some traces in Jewish records or elsewhere in the New Testament (the king and all Jerusalem upset over the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem: a star which moved from Jerusalem south to Bethlehem and came to rest over a house; the massacre of all the male children in Bethlehem). Luke's reference to a general census of the Empire under Augustus which affected Palestine before the death of Herod the Great is almost certainly wrong (Appendix VII), as is his understanding of the Jewish customs of the presentation of the child and the purification of the mother in 2:22-24. (p. 36) (emphasis added)

Thus Father Brown assumes that the historicity of the infancy narratives is problematical because they fail to conform to the standards of accuracy characteristic of modern history writing: 1) citation of sources; 2&3) internal consistency; 4) external documentary corroboration. Yet in so assuming he betrays a fallacy characteristic of so many modern exegetes an over-reliance upon the modern historical method with its precise tools of analysis. He consistently assumes that the only reliable means of ascertaining whether a narrative is historical or not is to see if it meets the exacting standards of this method.

Yet if we were to judge the reliability of all ancient historical documents with the same strict standards of accurate reporting with which Father Brown judges the reliability of the infancy narratives we would have to dismiss as questionable most of what they say. For ancient historians were simply unable to write with the same standards of accuracy as their modern counterparts do because they did not have available to them the means of precise recording that technology has made available to us printing presses, typewriters, tape recorders, movie cameras, etc. Therefore we often find in their writings: 1) lack of attention to strict chronological sequence giving rise to the sort of minor inconsistencies that Father Brown finds in the infancy narratives (i.e. the confusion over the amount of time the Holy Family spent in Bethlehem) and 2) few attempts to demonstrate the reliability of their accounts by identifying sources and by "footnoting" corroborating documents; 3) reconstructed speeches (necessitated by the fact that speeches were delivered extemporaneously in the ancient world): 4) pronounced didactic or apologetic bias in the selection of events to report; 5) abridged or telescoped accounts of a complex series of events in order to enhance the artistic impact. Ancient historians regarded history writing more as a literary art than as a science and wrote as much to instruct as to report facts. They recounted events as a storyteller would tell a story with dramatization and moral point. Yet no one questions the historicity of the events they describe solely on this basis.

Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History (iii 39) preserves for us an account of how Mark wrote his gospel which strikingly illustrates this method of history writing. He quotes from a now lost book written by Papias, a bishop of Micrapolis in Asia Minor, written around 130-140 A.D.

Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he mentioned, whether sayings or doings of Christ; not however, in order. For he was neither a hearer nor a companion of the Lord: but afterwards. as I said, he accompanied Peter, who adapted his teaching as necessity required. not as though he were making a compilation of the sayings of the Lord. So then Mark made no mistake, writing down in this way some things as he mentioned them. for he paid attention to this one thing, not to omit anything that he heard, not to include any false statement among them. (emphasis added)

Papias thus explicitly states that Mark attempted to record accurately only the words and deeds of Jesus as Peter remembered them not the chronological framework in which they occurred. [1] Furthermore he tells us what Mark himself doesn't bother to tell us that Peter was Mark's primary source. Father Brown's failure to take into account this less exact standard of history writing in evaluating the historicity of the infancy narratives constitutes a serious flaw in his argument.

Scriptural narratives which purport to be historical must be evaluated in light of ancient standards of history writing not in the light of modern standards. The minor seeming inconsistencies which the modern historian detects in them do not call into question their historicity or detract from their inerrancy. For these narratives give us a reliable account of what happened according to the standards of history writing current at the time they were written.

Misuse of the Literary Form Argument

Father Brown also reverses a long standing exegetical practice. He takes note of the fact, also acknowledged by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, that Scripture contains narrative genres other than the strictly historical. But unlike the Fathers who were slow to classify a Biblical writing as non-historical. Father Brown is quick to so label the infancy narratives. He breaks with traditional Catholic exegesis in placing the burden of proof on those who would argue for the historicity of the infancy narratives rather than on those who would argue against it. For instance, he states:

If all the facts discussed thus far have raised doubts about the historicity of the infancy narratives how are these doubts to be re solved? The theology of inspiration may not be invoked to guarantee historicity. For a divinely inspired story is not necessarily history. Any intelligent attempt to combine an acceptance of Biblical criticism must lead to the recognition that there are in the Bible fiction, parable, and folklore, as well as history. Nor will it do to argue that the infancy narratives must be historical or else they would not have been joined to the main body of Gospel material which had its basis in history. That argument wrongly supposes that history or biography was the dominant optic of the evangelist. and also that the evangelist could tell whether the stories he included had an historical origin. We must rather face a gamut of possibilities . . . both may be historical: one may be historical and the other much freer: or both may represent non-historical dramatizations. (p. 33 34) (emphasis added)

The Fathers and Doctors of the Church certainly acknowledged the use of figurative language and non-historical forms of narrative by the sacred writers. For example Augustine chapter 21 of his City of God regarded some of the details in Genesis 2-3 as figurative rather than literal expressions of the events that occurred. Similarly. all the Fathers regarded the parables of Jesus as examples of didactic fiction and some (St. Jerome and St. Gregory of Nazianzen) even surmised that Jonah might be so classified. Yet it is nonetheless true that we have a greater appreciation than ever before of the variety of literary genres contained in Scripture all teaching truth in their own way. This greater understanding is the result of Near Eastern archaeological discoveries of the last century which have brought to light the many types of literary genres used by contemporaries of the sacred writers, and therefore by the sacred writers themselves. Recent Magisterial pronouncements have allowed the exegete to take into account the literary genre God inspired the sacred writer to use in conveying the truth he wished to convey. Pope Pius X11 in his encyclical, Divino Afflante Spirito, was the first pope to take cognizance of this phenomenon:

Nevertheless no one, who has a correct idea of Biblical inspiration, will be surprised to find, even in the Sacred Writers, as in other ancient authors, certain fixed ways of expounding and narrating, certain definite idioms, especially of a kind peculiar to the Semitic tongues, so-called approximations, and certain hyperbolical modes of expression, indeed, at times, even paradoxical. which help to impress the ideas more deeply on the mind. For of the modes of expression which, among ancient peoples, and especially those of the East, human language used to express its thought, none is excluded from the Sacred Books, provided the way of speaking adopted in no wise contradicts the holiness and truth of God, as with his customary wisdom, the Angelic Doctor already observed in these words: 'In Scriptures divine things are presented to us in the manner which is in common use among men.' For as the substantial word of God became like to men in all things, 'except sin,' so the Words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error. In this consists that 'condescension' of the God of providence, which St. John Chrysostom extolled with highest praise and repeatedly declared to be found in the Sacred Books.

Hence the Catholic commentator, in order to comply with the present needs of Biblical studies, in explaining the Sacred Scriptures and in demonstrating and proving its immunity from all error, should also make a prudent use of this means, determine. that is, to what extent the manner of expression or the literary mode adopted by the Sacred Writer may lead to a correct and genuine interpretation; and let him be convinced that this part of his office cannot be neglected without serious detriment to Catholic exegesis. Not infrequently to mention only one instance when some persons reproachfully charge the Sacred Writers with some historical error or inaccuracy in the recording of facts, on closer examination it turns out to be nothing else than those customary modes of expression and narration peculiar to the ancients, which used to be employed in the mutual dealings of social life and which in fact were sanctioned by common usage. (Nos. 37 & 38) (emphasis added)

The Fathers of Vatican II in their decree, Dei Verbum also direct scholars to take into account the literary forms used by the Sacred Writers:

However, since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the Sacred Writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.

Those who search out the intention of the Sacred Writers must, among other things, have regard for 'literary forms.' For truth is proposed and expressed in a variety of ways, depending on whether a text is history of one kind or another, or whether its form is that of prophecy', poetry, or some other type of speech. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the Sacred Writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances as he used contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the Sacred Writer wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of perceiving, speaking. and narrating which prevailed at the time of the Sacred Writer, and to the customs men normally followed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another. (Chapter III No. 12) (emphasis added)

There is reason to believe that scripture contains narrative genres other than the strictly historical. Some of the late writings about pious individuals (Tobit, Judith, the Daniel stories, Esther, and possibly Jonah) resemble midrashes, the Jewish form of the widespread literary genre known as the historical romance an edifying tale which recounts the deeds of a historical hero with much fictional elaboration. Job, another late narrative written in poetry, exemplifies another type of literary genre characteristic of the ancient Near East the didactic fictional wisdom story designed to impart moral advice.

The fact that Scripture may contain non-historical narrative genres does not detract from the Church's constant teaching that Scripture in all its parts is inerrant. Pope Pius XII stated in his encyclical quoted above that the Catholic exegete

"in explaining Sacred Scripture and in demonstrating and proving its immunity from error should also . . . determine . . . to what extent the manner of expression or the literary mode adopted by the Sacred Writer may lead to a correct and genuine interpretation."

Thus each literary genre used by the Sacred Writers teaches God, truth without error in its own manner. As the Catechism. The Teaching of Christ explains it:

Yet because it is divine as well as human. the Bible achieves the varieties of communication peculiar to each of these forms free from any error regarding that which the divine Author wished specifically to express. (Appendix I p. 554)

A particular Scriptural writing's claim to inerrancy must be assessed in terms of the type of literature that writing represents. A book which is intentionally fictional does not err when it recounts events which never occurred.

Despite their recognition of the presence of literary genres other than strictly historical in Scripture, Catholic exegetes have traditionally shown great reserve in so classifying a narrative text. They have presumed the historicity of such texts unless compelling evidence forced them to think otherwise. Leo XIII in his encyclical Providentissims Deus, warns against abandoning this traditional reserve:

But he must not on that account, consider that it is forbidden, when just cause exists, to push inquiry and exposition beyond what the Fathers have done: provided he carefully observes the rule so wisely laid down by St. Augustine not to depart from the literal and obvious sense, except only where reason makes it untenable or necessity requires: a rule to which it is the more necessary to adhere strictly in these times, when the thirst for novelty and unrestrained freedom of thought make the danger of error most real and proximate. (Section C No. ld) (emphasis added)

Similarly the Pontifical Biblical Commission in its decree of June 23, 1905, directed scholars not to classify seemingly historical narratives as non-historical genres of writing without compelling evidence. The Commission was asked:

Is it possible to admit as a principle of sound exegesis that books of Sacred Scripture which are regarded as historical at times do not relate. either wholly or in part history properly so-called and objectively true, but present only 'the appearance of history with the purpose of expressing some meaning differing from the strictly literal or historical sense of the words.'

The Commission answered:

In the negative. Except in the case, neither easily nor rashly to be admitted in which, the mind of the Church not being contrary and without prejudice to its judgment, it is proved by solid arguments that . . . under the guise and form of history, a parable, an allegory. etc. is set forth. (emphasis added)

The Church has occasionally reevaluated the traditional view of the type of literature a narrative passage represents but has done so only when extra-Biblical evidence compelled it. An example of such a reevaluation in the light of extra-Biblical evidence is the reclassification of the first eleven chapters of Genesis as a genre of literature which sometimes describes events that actually occurred in figurative language.[2]

Yet no such extra-Biblical evidence necessitates a reconsideration of the Biblical narratives which recount the history of Israel beginning with Abraham. the events of which take place in the full light of recorded history. In fact. the opposite is the case. Archaeological discoveries have dramatically confirmed the historical reliability of these narratives by providing written and material evidence for many of the events and customs they describe.

We will probably never be able to draw the line with exactitude between the historical and the non-historical among Scriptural narrative texts. But the nature of our faith based as it is on the premise that God acted through historical events to save us requires that we presume historicity and put the burden of proof on those who would argue otherwise. The final judge must be the intuition of faith articulated by the Magisterium not the modern historical method.

In the case of the four Gospels the Magisterium has confirmed what the faithful have always intuited. The Fathers of Vatican II declare unequivocally that the New Testament accounts of Jesus' words and deeds are historically reliable:

Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (See Acts 1:1-2). Indeed, after the ascension of the Lord, the Apostles handed on to their hearers what He had said and done. This they did with that clearer understanding which they enjoyed after they had been instructed by the events of Christ's risen life and taught by the light of the Spirit of truth. The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explicating some things in view of the situation of their churches, and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus. For their intention in writing was that either from their own memory and recollections, or from the witness of those who themselves 'from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word' we might know 'the truth' concerning those matters about which we have been instructed. (cf. Lk. 1:2-4) (Chapter V. No. 19) (emphasis added)

By casting such radical doubt upon the historicity of the infancy narratives. Father Brown, in effect, undermines the basis for the constant teaching of the Church that Christ was born of a Virgin. For it is upon these narratives that the Church has traditionally based her belief in the Virgin Birth. In fact she has no reasonable grounds to teach it as true if the Biblical accounts of Jesus' birth constitute fictional creations of the early Christian imagination rather than reliable products of early Christian memory. Ultimately all Magisterial teaching bases itself on events recounted in Scripture. So to call into question the historical reliability of Scripture is, despite claims to the contrary, to call into question the trustworthiness of Magisterial teaching. As Pope Leo XIII states in his encyclical, Providentissimus Deus:

But since the divine and infallible Magisterium of the Church rests also on the authority of Holy Scripture, the first thing to be done is to vindicate the trustworthiness of the sacred record. (Section D No. 1)

Emphasis on Human Authorship

Father Brown does not deny the divine origin of the infancy narratives but the attention he pays to it is minimal. Throughout the introductory chapter of his book he focuses almost exclusively on the human origins of the two narratives on the creative role of the early Christian community in formulating the traditions about Christ's birth (form criticism) and on the role of the two evangelists in shaping the traditions into literary compositions (redaction criticism).

He proposes a speculative theory about the factors which motivated the early Christians to develop the stories about Jesus' infancy. He regards the two stories as literary creations of the two evangelists composed to satisfy the apologetic and curiosity needs of the early Christian community:

This brings us to a double question: why were the infancy narratives composed and why were they finally brought into the Gospel outline in the instances of Matthew and Luke. First, the reasons for the composition. Curiosity certainly played a role in both the canonical and apocryphical infancy stories. Christians wanted to know more about the master: his family, his ancestors, his birthplace. And on the implicit principle that the child is the father of the man, the miraculous aspects of Jesus' public life mere read back into his origins. Apologetics may explain certain aspects of the infancy stories. Some would see an apologetic against non-Christian followers of John the Baptist in the Lucan stories of John the Baptist's birth, e.g.. in order to protect the superiority of Jesus. Luke describes John the Baptist as acknowledging Jesus even before birth (1:41. 44). Others would see an anti-Docetist aspect in the emphasis on the birth of Jesus. More plausible is the suggestion that the story of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem was intended as a response to a Judaism sceptical about a Messiah who came from Galilee (John 7:41-42, 52). If Judaism was already beginning to charge that Jesus was illegitimate, the virginal conception offered an explanation that allowed for the irregularity in the birth, but at the same time, defended the purity of the mother and the sanctity of the child . . . Thus many factors, some no longer to be detected with certitude, went into the development of the infancy stories besides the most obvious possible factor: a Christian memory of events that happened. (p. 28-29) (emphasis added)

Father Brown thus regards subjective factors, such as early Christian curiosity about Jesus' childhood, as certainly involved in the formation of the infancy narratives. Yet he considers the objective factor of actually occurring historical events as only a possible basis for the stories. For him the subjective intentions of the human authors are self-evident while the objective occurrence of the events described are not.

Father Brown's almost exclusive emphasis upon the intentions of the human authors of the infancy narratives reverses the orientation of traditional Catholic exegesis. Catholic commentators have traditionally focused on the message the primary Author of Scripture, God, intended to convey through its secondary authors, the Sacred Writers not upon the secondary authors themselves. These exegetes fully acknowledged the human role in the development of Biblical literature but stressed the divine role for one basic reason: Scripture's uniqueness lies in its divine origin in its claim to be the word of God not in its human origin.

Recent Magisterial pronouncements on Scripture have shown a greater appreciation of the role of the Sacred Writers in cooperating with God to produce the Sacred Writings than did earIier ones. But none endorse an exegetical approach which, in effect, treats the human author as the primary author. Pope Benedict XV in his encyclical
Spiritus Paraclitus says of St. Jerome:

Yet he never questions that the individual authors of these Books worked in full freedom under the Divine afflatus, each of them in accordance with their individual nature and character. Thus he is not merely content to affirm as a general principle what indeed pertains to all the Sacred Writers that they followed the Spirit of God as they wrote, in such sort that God is the principal cause of all that Scripture means and says; but he also accurately describes what pertains to each individual writer. In each case Jerome shows us how, in composition, in language, in style, and mode of expression, each of them uses his own gifts and powers; hence he is able to portray and describe for us their individual character, almost their very features; this is especially so in his treatment of the Prophets and St. Paul. (Section II, No. 1) (emphasis added)

Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu writes similarly:

As our age has posed new questions and new difficulties, so in the providence-of God, it has offered new helps and aids to the exegete. Among these, worthy of particular note is the fact that Catholic theologians following the teaching of the Holy Father and most particularly of the Angelic and Common Doctor, have explored and explained more exactly and more completely the nature and effects of Biblical inspiration than was done in former ages. Starting from a proper treatment of this. that the inspired writer in composing his Sacred Book is a living and intelligent 'tool' or instrument of the Holy Spirit, they properly note that the writer, moved by divine impulse, so uses his own faculties and powers that from the book, which is the fruit of his labor, all men gather 'the individual character and distinguishing characteristics of each writer.' Let the interpreter, then. with all care and without neglecting any light derived from recent research, endeavor to determine the singular character and circumstances of the Sacred Writer, the age in which he lived and the sources, written or oral to which he had recourse and the forms of expression he used. (No. 33) (emphasis added)

Anthropological studies of the last century have deepened our understanding of the process by which oral traditions recounting the great events of people's history develop into various genres of literature. These studies have helped Scripture scholars construct hypothetical models of the human process by which the Sacred Writings themselves may have emerged from oral tradition. Yet, however helpful these literary critical hypotheses may be in calling attention to the human role in the formation of Scripture, they constitute a danger when given the kind of precedence that some modern exegetes give to them. For when an exegete focuses as much attention as Father Brown does on the human process of literature formation, he inevitably downplays divine inspiration.


Presumption of Unreliability in the Face of Difficulties


Catholic exegetes have traditionally demonstrated humility when confronted with insoluable problems, more readily assuming limitations in their own perspective than unreliability in Scripture. Papal encyclicals exhort scholars to manifest this traditional reserve by instructing them to follow the exegetical procedures laid down by St. Augustine and St. Jerome. Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical,
Providentissimus Deus describes this procedure:

And so emphatically were all the Fathers and Doctors agreed that the divine writings, as left by the hagiographers, are free from all error, that they labored earnestly, with no less skill than reverence, to reconcile with each other these numerous passages which seem at variance the very passages which in great measure have been taken up by the "higher criticism;" for they were unanimous in laying down that those writings, in their entirety and in all their parts were equally from the afflatus of Almighty God, and that God, speaking by the Sacred Writers, could not set down anything but what is true. The words of St. Augustine to St. Jerome may sum up what they taught:

On my own part I confess to your charity that it is only to those books of Scripture which are now called canonical that I have learned to pay such honor and reverence as to believe most firmly that none of their writers has fallen into any error. And if in these books I meet anything which seems contrary to Truth, I shall not hesitate to conclude either that the text is faulty, or that the translator has not expressed the meaning of the passage, or that I myself do not understand. (Section D No. 3b) (emphasis added)

. . . let scholars keep steadfastly to the principles which we have in this letter laid down. Let them loyally hold that God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is the Author of the Scriptures and that, therefore, nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. If, then, apparent contradiction be met with, every effort should be made to remove it. Judicious theologians and commentators should be consulted as to what is the true or most probable meaning of the passage in discussion and the hostile arguments should be carefully weighed. Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth, and we may be sure that some mistake has been made either in the interpretation of the sacred words or in the polemic discussion itself; and if no such mistake can be detected, we must then suspend judgment for the time being. . . . Wherefore, as no one should be so presumptuous as to think that he understands the whole of the Scripture, in which St. Augustine himself confessed that there was more that he did not know than that he knew, so if he should come upon anything that seems incapable of solution, he must take to heart the cautious rule of the same holy Doctor: 'It is better even to be oppressed by unknown but useful signs, than to interpret them uselessly and thus to throw off the yoke only to be caught in the trap of error. (Section D No. 5) (emphasis added)

Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Divino Afflanto Spiritu reiterates this exhortation after discussing the impact of archeological discoveries on Biblical scholarship:

Nonetheless no one should wonder if not all the difficulties are resolved, but that even today serious problems greatly stir the minds of Catholic exegetes. We should not lose courage on this account; it must never be forgotten that in the sphere of human knowledge, things are no different from they are in nature; that is to say, new beginnings grow little by little and fruits are gathered only after much labor. Thus it has happened that certain disputed points which in the past remained unsolved and in doubt, in our days, with the progress of studies, have found a satisfactory solution. Hence, there are grounds for hope that those also will, by constant effort, be at length made clear which now seem most complicated and difficult.

If the wished for solution be slow in coming or does not satisfy us, since perhaps a successful conclusion may be reserved to posterity, let no one complain, for in us is truly verified what the Fathers and especially Augustine observed in their time: namely that God wished difficulties to be scattered throughout the Sacred Books inspired by Him, in order that we might be urged to read and scrutinize them more intensely, and experiencing in a salutary manner our own limitations, we might be exercised in proper humility. Therefore, there should be no amazement if no completely satisfactory answer is ever found to one or another question since, at times, we are dealing with things hidden and far removed from our times and realm of experience. Besides, exegesis like other more serious sciences can have its own secrets which, since they are beyond the power of our minds, can never be discovered no matter how hard we try. (Nos. 44-45) (emphasis added)

Pope Benedictus XV in his intervening encyclical, Spiritus Paraclitus likewise refers to the exegetical approach of St. Jerome and St. Augustine.

. . . for Jerome . . . 'there is nothing discordant or conflicting . . . when Scripture seems to be in conflict with itself, both passages are true despite their diversity.'

Holding principles like these, Jerome was compelled, when he discovered apparent discrepancies in the Sacred Books, to use every endeavor to unravel the difficulty. If he felt that he had not satisfactorily settled the problem, he would return to it again and again, not always, indeed, with the happiest results. Yet he would never accuse the Sacred Writers of the slightest mistake 'that we leave to impious folk like Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian.' There he is in full agreement with Augustine, who wrote to Jerome . . . (Section II, No. 3) (emphasis added)

Thus Catholic exegetes have traditionally left problems they were unable to solve in the hands of future generations of scholars, confident that God in his providence would provide the answers if he so willed. They trusted God's intention in inspiring Scripture to be written the way it was to such an extent that they saw a didactic purpose in its seemingly unresolved difficulties to teach us humility.

Father Brown, in contrast, seems to manifest the very overconfidence in his own judgment that Augustine and Jerome warn against. He tends to presume the unreliability of Scripture when he fails to extract from its texts answers to questions that he poses from the perspective of a modern historian. He assumes that Scripture's failure to provide the information he expects it to provide indicates a problem with Scripture not with his approach to it. For instance, he makes much of seeming discrepancies between events recounted in the infancy narratives and those recounted in the gospel accounts of the public ministry:

These Gospels now began with a conception and birth, and continued through a public life, and ended with a death and resurrection. On first reading, such a biography makes perfect sense, but upon reflection many features are puzzling. If Herod and all Jerusalem knew of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:3) and indeed Herod slaughtered the children of a whole town in the course of looking for Jesus (2:16), why is it that later in the ministry no one seems to know of Jesus' marvelous origins (13:54-55)? and Herod's son recalls nothing about him (14:1-2)? If it was made clear through an angelic message to the parents of Jesus who Jesus was (the Davidic Messiah, the Son of God), why is it so difficult for his disciples to discern this later on, even though Mary was alive at the time of the ministry? Indeed why does Mary herself seem to be an outsider to the family of true disciples (Matt. 12:46-50)? If John the Baptist was a relative of Jesus who recognized him even before his birth (Luke 1:41, 44), why does John the Baptist give no indication during the ministry of a previous knowledge of Jesus and indeed seems to be puzzled by him (7:19)? Ingenious harmonizing has been invoked to solve such conflicts, e.g. John the Baptist really did know about Jesus but was sending his disciples so that they could discover for themselves; or it was modesty that prevented Mary from telling the disciples that her son was the Son of God. But such ingenuity may be dispensed with when the backwards process of Gospel formation and christological development is understood. The stories of the ministry were shaped in Christian tradition without a knowledge of the infancy material; and the evangelists never really smoothed out all the narrative rough spots left by the joining of two bodies of once-independent material, even though in their own minds they presumably would have reconciled the different theologies therein contained. (p. 31-32) (emphasis added)

When we encounter a problem of seeming narrative discontinuity such as the one Father Brown faces in this passage we should restrict ourselves to the facts in this case: 1) the individuals who had a role in the miraculous events surrounding Jesus' birth might not have publically proclaimed what they knew, and 2) the evangelists do not tell us why they didn't. We may attempt to resolve the difficulties in the way Catholic exegetes have traditionally attemted to resolve them by the technique of harmonization which involves, in this case, surmising the motives of the parties involved. But any guesses as to why Mary, John and Herod acted the way they did must always remain just that mere guesses. We are not obliged to accept even those surmises proposed by the Fathers. But we are obliged to accept the basic premise which underlies their exegeses the assumption that the seeming discrepancies could be explained if we had more information. Father Brown's highly speculative proposal that the supposed narrative discontinuity represents a bad literary "join" of two once independent traditions, only one of which is historical, follows naturally from his rejection of this premise.

God inspired the sacred writers to write "the things which he ordered and those only."[3] Humility dictates that we not attempt to penetrate beyond what he has allowed us to see that we not demand of Scripture that it provide the information a modern writer would provide.

Skepticism toward Traditional Interpretations

Father Brown interprets the infancy rarratives without reference to the rich Mariological tradition of the Church. In fact, he seems to do his exegesis more on the basis of the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura than on the basis of the Catholic principle of the analogy of faith. For, while he regularly cites as "authorities" contemporary exegetes, many of them non-Catholics, he ignores the views of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. When he does mention traditional opinion he betrays a skepticism toward it incompatible with a truly Catholic perspective. For instance, he dismisses as a "pious deduction" the traditional view that Mary and possibly Joseph provided the apostles with information on Jesus' infancy:

Conmentators of times past have harmonized these different details into a consecutive narrative, so that the ordinary Christian is often not even aware of a difficulty when Lucan shepherds and Matthean magi fraternize in the Christmas Crib scene. But if originally there was one narrative, how did it ever become fragmented into the two different accounts we now have? As I hinted above, the suggestion that Matthew is giving Joseph's remembrance of the events, while Luke is giving Mary's is just a pious deduction from the fact that Joseph dominates Matthew's account, and Mary dominates Luke's. In point of fact, how could Joseph ever have told the story in Matthew and not have reported the annunciation to Mary? And how could Mary have been responsible for the story in Luke and never have mentioned the coming of the magi and the flight into Egypt? (p. 35) (emphasis added)

In this statement Father Brown also rejects as self-evidently wrong a traditional exegetical procedure called harmonization. Catholic commentators of the past have regularly combined into a composite whole differing accounts of the same complex of events. Yet this method is not as outmoded and discardable by well-trained modern exegetes as he suggests. For students of ancient Near-Eastern history regularly use it to reconstruct a consistent historical account from fragmentary sources. For instance, they reconstruct a probably reliable account of the reigns of early Mesopotamian kings by piecing together the scanty information found in two different sources. To my knowledge no ancient Near Eastern Scholar calls into question the historical value of the information thus provided merely because each document focuses on different details in a king's life.

Magisterial documents unequivocally direct scholars to conduct their exegesis according to the principle of the analogy of faith that is, on the assumption that the God who has authorized the teaching authorities of the Catholic Church to interpret in his name his word in Scripture and Tradition cannot contradict himself. Vatican I forbids interpreting Scripture in matters of faith and morals contrary to the sense universally held by the Church and unanimously asserted by the Fathers:

. . . in things of faith and morals, belonging to the building up of Christian doctrines, that is to be considered the true sense of Holy Scripture, which has been held and is held by our Holy Mother the Church, whose place it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Scriptures, and there fore, that it is permitted to no one to interpret Holy Scripture against such sense or also against the unanimous agreement of the Fathers. (On Revelation, Session 3, Chapter 2) (emphasis added)

Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical; Providentissimus Deus, lays down explicit guidelines for scholars to follow so that they will build upon rather than tear down traditional Catholic exegesis. First he directs them not to interpret otherwise those passages which the Magisterium has interpreted authoritatively in both her ordinary teaching and her solemn definitions:

Wherefore the first and dearest object of the Catholic commentator should be to interpret those passages which have received an authentic interpretation either from the Sacred Writers themselves. under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (as in many places of the New Testament), or from the Church. under the assistance of the same Holy Spirit, whether by her solemn judgment or her ordinary and universal Magisteriurn to interpret those passages in that identical sense, and to prove by all the resources of science. that sacred hermeneutical laws admit of no other interpretation. (Section C No. la) (emphasis added)

Secondly, he directs scholars to interpret all other passages according to the principles of the analogy of faith that is, in a way not contrary to Magisterial doctrine, defined or undefined:

In the other passages the analogy of faith; should be followed and Catholic doctrine, as authoritatively proposed by the Church, should be held as the supreme law; for seeing that the same God is the author both of the Sacred books and of the doctrine committed to the Church, it is clearly impossible that any teaching can, by legitimate means, be extracted from the former, which, shall, in any respect, be at variance with the latter. Hence, it follows that all interpretation is foolish and false which either makes the Sacred Writers disagree one with another, or is opposed to the doctrines of the Church. (Section C No. lb) (emphasis added)

Thirdly, he directs scholars to interpret all Scriptural passages concerning faith and morals in a way consistent with the unanimous opinion of the Fathers:

The Holy Fathers, we say, are of supreme authority, whenever they all interpret in one and the same manner any text of the Bible, as pertaining to the doctrine of faith and morals, for their unanimity clearly evinces such interpretation has come down from the Apostles as a matter of Catholic faith. The opinion of the Fathers is also of very great weight when they treat of those matters in their capacity of Doctors unofficially: not only because they excel in their knowledge of revealed doctrine and in their acquaintance with many things which are useful in understanding the apostolic books, but because they are men of eminent sanctity and of ardent zeal for the truth, on whom God has bestowed a more ample measure of his light, wherefore the expositor should make it his duty to follow their footsteps with all reverence and to use their labors with intelligent appreciation. (Section C No. Ic) (emphasis added) [4]

Pope Pius XII in his encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, reiterates the norms of interpretation laid down by his predecessor:

The interpreters of Sacred Scripture, mindful of the fact that here there is question of a divinely inspired text, the care and interpretation of which have been confided to the Church by God himself, should no less diligently take into account the explanations and declarations of the teaching authority of the Church as likewise the interpretation given by the Holy Fathers, and even 'the analogy of faith' as Leo XIII most wisely observed in the Encyclical Letter, Providentissimus Deus. (No. 24) (emphasis added)

In his encyclical, Humani Generis, he speaks disapprovingly of those who replace the principle of the analogy of faith with its contrary, that of sola Scriptura:

In interpreting Scripture, they will take no account of the analogy of faith and the Tradition of the Church. Thus they judge the doctrines of the Fathers and of the Teaching Church by the norm of Holy Scripture interpreted by the purely human reason of exegetes, instead of explaining Holy Scripture according to the mind of the Church which Christ our Lord has appointed guardian and interpreter of the whole deposit of divinely revealed truth. (No. 38) (emphasis added)

Benedict XV in his intervening encyclical, Spiritus Paraclitus, also warns scholars against a presumptuous disregard for the limits set by the Fathers:

We warmly commend, of course, those who with the assistance of critical methods, seek to discover new ways of explaining the difficulties of Holy Scripture, whether for their own guidance or to help others. But we remind them that they will only come to miserable grief if they neglect our predecessors's injunctions and overstep the limits set by the Fathers. (Section 3) (emphasis added)

The Fathers of Vatican II in their decree, Dei Verbum, re-emphasize the indissoluble link between God's word in Scripture and Tradition and the Magisterium which interprets it:

It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, sacred Scripture, and the teaching author authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others. . . . (No. 10) (emphasis added)

They then insist that Scripture be interpreted consistently with itself and with tradition under the scrutiny of the Magisterium:

But, since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted according to the same spirit by whom it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly brought to light. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of sacred scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature. For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God. (No. 12) (emphasis added)

Disregard for the Typology

Traditional Catholic exegesis distinguishes between the "literal" and the "typical" senses of Scriptural passages. The literal sense includes both the "proper literal" sense in which words express what they mean literally, that is according to their dictionary definitions, and the "improper literal" sense in which words express what they mean figuratively, that is through metaphors, hyperboles, etc. Every passage has one obvious literal meaning, proper or improper. Many passages also have what the Church calls a "typical" or "spiritual" meaning discernable only from the vantage point of Christ's revelation. This sense is that which a person, thing, or event of the Old Testament has when it foreshadows or prefigures a person, thing or event of the New. Thus Adam is the type of Christ (Romans 5:14); manna is the type of the Eucharist (John 6:31-35); and the deluge is the type of Baptism (I Peter 3:21). Typical meanings are distinct from improper literal or figurative meanings in that they signify persons and things which really existed and events which really occurred. A figure of speech, on the other hand, constitutes an imaginary, rather than actually occurring similitude. [5]

Magisterial documents direct scholars to use the typological as well as the literal method of interpretation. Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical, Providentissimus Deus, stresses the apostolic origin of this method and its constant use by the Fathers and in the Liturgy:

Neither should those passages be neglected which the Fathers have understood in an. allegorical or figurative sense (i.e. the typical or spiritual sense), more especially when such interpretation is justified by the literal, and when it rests on the authority of the many. For this method of interpretation has been received by the Church from the Apostles and has been approved by her own practice, as the holy Liturgy attests; although it is true that the Holy Fathers did not therefore pretend directly to demonstrate dogmas of faith, but used it as a means of promoting virtue and piety, such as, by their own experience they knew to be most valuable. (Section C No. ld) (emphasis added)

Similarly Pope Pius XII in his encyclical, Divino Afflattte Spiritu, exhorts the scholar to imitate the constant exegetical tradition of the Church which began with Christ's own interpretation of the Old Testament:

For what was said and done in the Old Testament was ordained and disposed by God with such consummate wisdom, that things past prefigured in a spiritual way those that were to come, under the new dispensation of grace. Wherefore the exegete, just as he must search out and expound the literal meaning of the words intended and expressed by the Sacred Writer, so also must he do likewise for the spiritual sense, provided it is clearly intended by God. For God alone could have known this spiritual meaning and have revealed it to us. Now our divine Savior Himself points out to us and teaches us the same sense in the Holy Gospel; the Apostles also, following the example of the Master, profess in their spoken written words; the unchanging tradition of the Church approves it; finally the most ancient usage of the liturgy proclaims it, wherever may be rightly applied the well-known principle: 'The rule of prayer is the rule of faith.' (No. 26) (emphasis added)

Pope Benedict XV in his intervening encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus exhorts scholars to adhere to the sound exegetical rule of Saint Jerome which requires that all typical meanings be based on the literal sense:

In the first place we must study the literal or historical meaning . . . Jerome then goes on to say that all interpretation rests on the literal sense, and that we are not to think that there is no literal sense merely because a thing is said metaphorically, for 'the history itself is often presented in metaphorical dress and described figuratively' . . . Once, however, he has firmly established the literal or historical meaning, Jerome goes on to seek out deeper and hidden meanings so as to nourish his mind with more delicate food.

On this point he makes the wise remark that we ought not to desert the path mapped out by Christ and His Apostles, who, while regarding the Old Testament as preparing for and foreshadowing the New Covenant, and whilst consequently explaining various passages in the former as figurative (i.e. typical or spiritual). yet do not give a figurative interpretation of all alike. (Section VI, No. 3) (emphasis and parentheses added)

Father Brown does find parallels between events described in the Old Testament and those described in the infancy narratives but he does not interpret them typologically. For him the parallels are only literary, not historical arising from Matthew's and Luke's borrowing of Old Testament literary devices rather than from God's providential arrangement of events so that one foreshadows another. In his introductory chapter he states that the evangelists modelled many of their accounts of the "miraculous" events surrounding the birth of Christ on Old Testament prototypes:

Some of these events are quite implausible as history, [6] have now been understood as rewritings of Old Testament scenes and themes. (p. 36)

Later in the book he describes two such literary parallels that between: 1) the Lukan account of the annunciation and several Old Testament accounts of angelic birth announcements (p. 155-159) and 2) the Matthean story of the Magi and. the old Testament story of Balaam (p. 190-196). He says of the encounter between the Angel Gabriel and Mary:

. . . I posit a tradition of an angelic annunciation of the birth of the Davidic messiah, an annunciation fashioned in popular circles on the pattern of Old Testament annunciations of birth. (p. 162) [7]

Similarly he says of the Magi account:

. . . what is the background of this narrative? Many suggestions have been made . . . Nevertheless, the most likely background is offered by the episode centered on Balaam in Numbers 22-24. (p. 193)

Viewed typologically the story of Balaam indeed finds a parallel in the story of the Magi but the parallel is not only literary. Rather God actually inspired a Moabite diviner, Balaam. representing the religious wisdom of Israel's pagan neighbors, to acknowledge Israel's ascendency just as he would one day inspire three astrologers, the Magi, representing the religious wisdom of the Roman world, to acknowledge the lordship of Christ as the new Israel. Thus God's use of Balaam's divinatory skills to inspire a prophecy in favor of Israel prefigures his use of the astrological skills of the Magi to inspire their devotion to Christ. Similarly the angelic birth annunciations of the Old Testament which designate the saviors of Israel are types of, not just literary parallels to, the definitive angelic birth announcement of the New Testament which designates Jesus Christ as Savior of all mankind.

Thus the major premises on which Fr. Brown bases his exegesis of the infancy narratives contradict the principles of interpretation traditionally utilized by Catholic scholars and repeatedly reiterated in Magisterial documents of the last two centuries. Fr. Brown's' exegetical assumptions his over reliance upon the modern historical method as the means of evaluating the historical value of a New Testament narrative; his misuse of the literary form argument to predicate its non-historicity; his overemphasis on the intentions of the human author as a determinative factor in its formation; his presumption of its unreliability whenever he encounters difficulties; his skepticism towards traditional interpretations of its origins: and his disregard for typology as a means of explaining parallels between the events it describes and those recorded in the Old Testament reverse the accumulated wisdom of centuries of Catholic scholarship. Regardless of the intent of the exegete, exegesis based on such premises will inevitably erode confidence in the Scriptures on which the traditional doctrines of the Catholic faith are based.


ENDNOTES


1. Similarly, Luke assures us at the beginning of his gospel that he consulted eyewitnesses but fails to name them:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good for me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you. most excellent Theophilus. . . . (Luke I: 1-3)

2. See the degrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (June 30. 1909) on the historicity of the first three chapters of Genesis and the letter from the Secretary of the Commission to Cardinal Suhard (January 16. 1948) which interprets these earlier degrees.

3. Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, Section D. No. 2a.

4. See also the directives of Pope Leo XIII on the prideful refusal to utilize the commentaries of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church (section C, no. Ic); on the utilization of novel exegetical methods which conflict with traditional principle's, of interpretation (section C. no. Id); on over-reliance upon non-Catholic Biblical research (section C, no. Id); and on the constructive role exegetes can play in the development of Catholic doctrine if they conduct their research along these guidelines (Section C, no. la).

5. Msgr. John Steinmueller, The Sword of the Spirit, p. 12-14.

6. To state that "miraculous" events are "implausible as history" is to subscribe to a rationalist definition of history.

7. By assuming that descriptions of angelic appearances in the Bible are merely literary devices, Father Brown, in effect, calls into question the solemnly defined teaching of the Church that angels exist (Lateran 4, D 428, & Vatican I ) 1783).

Mrs. Edith Black has a M. Div. degree from Union Theological Seminary, an interdenominational Protestant Seminary, which she attended before converting to Catholicism. She has taught Old Testament courses for Crucible, a Christian adult education ministry in Berkeley, California, and was a graduate student in ancient Near Eastern languages at the University of California, Berkeley. A previous article appeared in the February 1980 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review.

First published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, December 1980, pp 13-23 and January, 1981 pp 24-32.


Copyright ©; Edith Black 1980, 1981

This Version: 5th March 2004


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