Sunday, December 13, 2009

Jesuit Bible Scholar on Source Criticism and Exegesis

Jesuit Father Dennis J. McCarthy was one of the great Catholic Old Testament scholars of the twentieth century. He enjoyed a long career at the Biblicum, and published widely, making important contributions especially on the topic of biblical covenants. Dr. Scott Hahn is deeply indebted to McCarthy, as a scan of the author's index to Hahn's tome Kinship by Covenant will show. McCarthy has a great quote on the task of the biblical exegete that I like to share with my friends:

But the primary object of literary study is the text, its primary tools a knowledge of words and phrases and a feel for their use. A first call then: let us read the text for what it is with all the wit and skill we can bring to it. This sounds very simple, but it is not. Normally, the Biblist does not read the text. He breaks it up and reads parts. He tears out its sources. He does not explain the significance of the so-called “plague stories” in Exodus. He merely explains what the Yahwist writer or the Priestly writers thought about plagues. But it is the narrative as it stands which interests the Church or the men of culture concerned with the world’s classics. This also should be the Biblist’s interest in so far as he is concerned with explaining the Bible. [From D. J. McCarthy, “God as Prisoner of Our Own Choosing: Critical-Historical Study of the Bible,” in Historicism and Faith (ed. P. L. Williams; Scranton, PA: SCS, 1980) 40.]

For what it's worth, I think McCarthy is right. And restricting Old Testament catechesis to a study of Wellhausenian source criticism, which is actually done in some places, is, I think, not the way to go. What does everyone else think?


Sister Mary Agnes said...

I think Father McCarthy is right. When I read the Scriptures, I find it easy to go off into tangents by wanting to learn all about when it was written and why it was written. Those things are important and helpful.

But the peripheral knowledge is not the Word of God: the text is!

I am not a scholar, but I am a student of Michael Barber and I am addicted to Brant Pitre CD's. I am continually amazed when they explain the text in the way that Father McCarthy is describing. It makes the whole Bible come alive and has been very helpful in my prayer life. Now when I meditate on the Mass readings every day, I find that I take the Bible and read the passages before and after the day's readings, so that I can understand the context. I am so grateful to have learned this, because I am learning how to listen to the Word of God instead of just think about it.

Lee Gilbert said...

Nor am I a bible scholar, but in 1988 a nun with a newly minted masters in biblical studies from CTU made a ten week presentation on Exodus to our parish. It was largely based on the Documentary Hypothesis. Besides being appalled, I was also very intrigued. This was the same sterile, soul-destroying nonsense that had so badly affected my faith when as a senior in high school we were given a year long slog through the scriptures that began with the Pentateuch as viewed through the eyes of Wellhausen. So in 1988, 27 yrs after that debacle, I got on the train and went downtown to the Spertus Institute on Michigan Avenue in Chicago to find out what the Jews thought about Wellhausen, and ended up reading Cassuto in their library.

Why or how Catholic biblical scholars can take the JEPD delerium seriously after Cassuto's response, I cannot fathom.

Personally I am convinced that a good part of the recent clerical scandal can be laid at the feet of the Bible 101 courses based on the JEPD theory given at seminaries all over the world. Devout young men filled with the Holy Spirit and and answering the call to the priesthood are systematically denuded of their faith in the very first weeks of their life in the seminary. It's bizarre beyond belief.

Especially is this insane when it was overwhelmingly obvious 25 yrs before the Holocaust that the documentary hypothesis is anti-semitic.

In an address entitled, "The Higher Anti-Semitism" presented to a Jewish Seminary in 1915 Solomon Schecter had this to say:

Our great claim to the gratitude of mankind is that we gave to the world the word of God, the Bible. We have stormed heaven to snatch down this heavenly gift, as the Paitanic expression is; we threw ourselves into the breach and covered it with our bodies against every attack; we allowed ourselves to be slain by hundreds and thousands rather than become unfaithful to it; and we bore witness to its truth and watched over its purity in the face of a hostile world. The Bible is our sole raison d’ĂȘtre, and it is just this which the Higher anti-Semitism is seeking to destroy, denying all our claims for the past, and leaving us without hope for the future.

Can any section among us afford to concede to this professorial and imperial anti-Semitism and confess “for a truth we and our ancestors have sinned’” we have lived on false pretenses and were the worst shams in the world? Forget not that we live in an historical age in which everybody must show his credentials from the past. The Bible is our patent of nobility granted to us by the Almighty God, and if we disown the Bible, leaving it to the tender mercies of a Wellhausen, Stade and Duhm, and other beautiful souls working away at diminishing the “nimbus of the Chosen People,” the world will disown us."

If the JEPD theory was dangeous for Judaism and Jews then, it is just as dangerous for Catholicism and Catholics now. It is a solvent for the Scripture and the faith based upon it. It is a danger and a delusion- besides being completely ridiculous. There is not a shred of extra-textual evidence to support it. The Jews, who wrote the book and who have a living tradition of interpretation do not accept JEPD. Nevertheless, it is still taught in Catholic semnaries. In the name of all that is holy, WHY?

I wonder how far such an approach would take a scholar in Shakespeare studies or Homeric studies. He'd be laughed out of his department, would he not? But unfortunately Wellhausen went into the scriptural exegesis biz.

Michael Pigg said...

I have a question regarding a certain person that is head of a Catholic Seminary. I was loaned 2 books by Margaret Nutting Ralph to help me learn how to interpret scripture and how to discern between genre types. I find that her teachings are very modern and she seems to come from a liberal way of life. She claims that the creation story in Genesis is total fiction and was only written to explain why people suffer due to sin. I never held this belief and really can not stomach reading much of her writings. She calls herself a contexualist and talks poorly of fundamentalist. I lean more towards being a traditionalist/fundamentalist when reading scripture but ultimately submit to what the church teaches about reading scripture. The Pontifical Biblical Convention in the early 1900s makes it very clear that dismissing Genesis 1-3 as fiction is heresy. Am I correct in where I stand or is Margaret Nutting Ralph really correct? I am asking if anyone knows of her writings and if her writings are well grounded with the traditions and writings of our Fathers in faith. Any insight would be helpful. I am a Lutheran going through RCIA in Mandeville, LA and I really am reaching out. A class leader that I dearly enjoy gave me the books. I know their heart is in the right place but I usually disagree with them when it comes to Biblical interpretation.


Jim Curry said...

I took one class from the Old Testament scholar, Fr. Roland Murphy, a Carmelite. He used to caution his students to know what the text actually says before they begin to tell others what it means. It is very sound advice.

Anonymous said...

One reason why people take credit in JEPD is because it's in the footnotes of certain Bibles, such as New Jerusalem, New American, and the Bibles given to Confirmation candidates in America (if not also elsewhere).

Eric Sammons said...

Fr. McCarthy is right on.

I just recently taught a class at my parish called "Encountering Christ in the Scriptures: Reading the Bible Spiritually", and a heavy component of the class was Old Testament typology. I basically ignored source criticism and simply focused on what the books themselves say and how they point to Christ.

I found that the participants (all your average Catholics) were very excited to read the OT as books whose message points to Christ rather than as a cadaver to be dissected - especially after I showed them that this is how Christ himself, the first Christians and the Church through the centuries have read it. You could tell that many of them were intimidated by the OT, and most of that intimidation came from the footnotes in their own Bible, which did nothing to explain the text in the context of the whole Christian Bible.

John Bergsma said...

Dear Michael Pigg:

I actually haven't heard of Margaret Nutting Ralph, but a quick search shows she writes popular biblical materials for Paulist Press. She seems to be more of a New Testament scholar.

On the issue of Genesis, the Church does affirm that Genesis 1-3 speaks of real historical events, although there may be presented in a figurative way. How figurative is a matter for discussion and further thought, but the Church does establish certain fixed points to guide interpretation. Namely, we must affirm that there were two human parents who gave rise to the whole human race. Further, we must affirm there was a historical fall into sin by those first parents. There are other guidelines as well; the encyclical to read on this is Humanae Generis by Pius XII, which is easily available online.

I am afraid that magisterial teaching is not always kept in mind by Catholic bible scholars, and some of the material that made widely available to lay people does not represent the best of the tradition or the heart of the Church. As a fellow convert (from Calvinism), I congratulate you in your decision to enter into RCIA! If you'd like to talk more, feel free to email me.

John Bergsma said...

Oops, sorry for a few typos in that previous post: "although they may be presented in a figurative way."

Michael Pigg said...

Thanks John. She does seem to be more of a New Testament scholar. I appreciate your response. I was hoping to get feedback from others that may have read her work or heard of her so that my opinion of her work could either be confirmed or corrected. But again, I do thank you for your response.


hiob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rebecca Holter said...

Hey Michael Pigg!

Welcome to the Catholic Church, brother! Sorry, I’ve also not read her works. And based on the recommendations she’s received from at least one of the posters over at the Catholic Answers Forums, I would not be interested in receiving instruction from her either. You may decide that you want to politely return her books. I would say that the fact that scholar John Bergsma has not heard of her is a good sign! :)

Although not dealing with Genesis directly, I recently participated in a thread on the Catholic Answers Forums on the subject of Biblical inerrancy. I have a very high view of Scripture and I thought you might enjoy some of the material that was brought forward. I joined the thread starting here:

Praise God for Singing in the Reign… oh, I mean, The Sacred Page. :)

Your brother in the Lord Jesus,
Pete Holter

MEP said...

Thanks Pete. I plan on returning the books. I appreciate the home coming. I will go check out the thread you posted.


Jeremy Priest said...

I recently spent a week with Fr. James Swetnam, SJ focusing on the Letter to the Hebrews and found him to embody Fr. McCarthy's approach as explained in this quotation, John. What an excellent piece! Thanks so much for posting it.

I'm amazed that so many from the Biblicum have a solid approach: how has this approach to Scripture not seeped down into the teaching at Catholic seminaries? My experience of the Old Testament was a spiritually dry and dusty desert. Perhaps we were just being initiated into an experiential desert-wandering for our enrichment -- a Scriptural dark night of the soul! If it wasn't for Dr. Hahn's class it would have never seen the Promised Land. I suppose we just have to wait and pray for vision like Fr. McCarthy's to take hold...but the wait seems so long!

Josh said...

Hey Michael Pigg!

I just recently attended a seminar given by Margaret Nutting Ralph on her contextualist approach. She was very clear in assuring that her perspective is one not easily stomached, but one she adopted from Church teaching on Scripture:

109 In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.

110 In order to discover the sacred authors' intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. "For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression."

111 But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. "Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written."

She gave examples of obvious historical errancies such as the fact that certain animal species were not known until about the time Genesis was written. What she emphasizes is the need to understand "literary forms." For example, most children interpret metaphor as fact. If you say to a child, "What does it mean that God holds you in the palm of His hand?", the child will probably say what you would expect: "God cares for me or protects me, etc." But if you ask the child, "Does God have hands?", the child will automatically understand the image as literally true, not as metaphorically true. This approach is not prohibited by the Church nor is it necessarily endorsed. How we are to interpret Old Testament stories (such as Jonah and the whale) is not prescribed. In other words, the Church does not definitely teach that a certain Scripture interpretation must be believed, but rather encourages the faithful to make an educated decision within the parameters of faith and reason. Nutting Ralph is an absolutely remarkable theologian and I would recommend reading through her book "And God Said What?"

Although a specific story may not be literally true, the associated meaning IS true. But we often assume that if the actual story is not true than the meaning it conveys is also fallacious. That is simply not true.

NeoSUFI.Tato said...

TORTOISE (Hinduism) and DRAGON (Taoism) are symbols for ENERGY or WAVE, both are analog with MAGEN DAVID (Judaism). "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is the metaphor, also Thawaf seven times circling around the Ka'ba and Sa’i oscillating along “the sinus” Marwah-Shafa during rituals of the Hajj (Abraham).
"A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME - From the Big Bang to Black Hole" by Stephen W. Hawking is the best scientific interpretation of AL QUR'AN by a non believer. It is also a “genuine bridge stone” for comprehensive study of Theology. Surprise, this paradox is a miracle and blessing in disguise as well. So, it should be very wise and challenging for Moslem scholars to verify my discovery.
NeoSUFI visionary strategic thinking.