Are Bible Scholars a Bunch of Heretics?

Frank - facade and statue

Have you ever delved into the notes provided in the New American Bible?

That is the translation used in the English Lectionary. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has the rights to it. If you quote more than a certain minimum in a publication of your own you must pay them royalties. Many Catholic schools give a copy of this very Bible to their students or require them to purchase one as early as sixth grade, so, theoretically, it can accompany them on their faith journey into adulthood.

Jesus did not preach the Beatitudes?

So imagine you’re reading the Sermon on the Mount, and you get to the Beatitudes, and you wonder, who exactly are the poor in spirit, or the meek, or what does clean of heart mean, or what does it take to be a peacemaker, and you look down at the footnote for help? Here is what you’ll read.

[5:312] The form Blessed are (is) occurs frequently in the Old Testament in the Wisdom literature and in the psalms. Although modified by Matthew, the first, second, fourth, and ninth beatitudes have Lucan parallels (Mt 5:3 // Lk 6:20; Mt 5:4 // Lk 6:21b; Mt 5:6 // Lk 6:21a; Mt 5:1112 // Lk 5:2223). The others were added by the evangelist and are probably his own composition. A few manuscripts, Western and Alexandrian, and many versions and patristic quotations give the second and third beatitudes in inverted order.

What? Besides the fact that nobody except maybe a Biblical scholar cares about Lucan parallels or whether some ancient manuscripts have inverted the order of two of them, the note claims that the third, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth beatitudes are words Matthew put into the mouth of Jesus.

So, somebody important in the Catholic Church says Jesus never said:

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.

What else did Jesus never say?

So you wonder, what else did Jesus never say? Maybe you wonder, do I have to pay attention to anything Jesus allegedly said?

Today, for example, this country is upside down over what marriage is. One of the key Scriptural sources of Catholic teaching on marriage is Jesus’ return to the beginning when he said about Moses’ allowance of divorce: “In the beginning it was not so” (Mt. 19:8). Did Jesus maybe never say that either? Maybe Matthew was just a first century bigot whose words put into the mouth of Jesus can be discarded?

What Mary never said?

Or consider Our Lady’s Magnificat, recorded in the Gospel of Luke. This is her hymn of praise spoken to her cousin Elizabeth after Elizabeth exclaimed that her unborn son had leapt for joy in recognition of Mary’s unborn son. Alas, here our N.A.B. note says:

[1:4655] Although Mary is praised for being the mother of the Lord and because of her belief, she reacts as the servant in a psalm of praise, the Magnificat. Because there is no specific connection of the canticle to the context of Mary’s pregnancy and her visit to Elizabeth, the Magnificat (with the possible exception of v 48) may have been a Jewish Christian hymn that Luke found appropriate at this point in his story. Even if not composed by Luke, it fits in well with themes found elsewhere in Luke: joy and exultation in the Lord; the lowly being singled out for God’s favor; the reversal of human fortunes; the fulfillment of Old Testament promises. The loose connection between the hymn and the context is further seen in the fact that a few Old Latin manuscripts identify the speaker of the hymn as Elizabeth, even though the overwhelming textual evidence makes Mary the speaker.

So, Mary did not really speak the Magnificat? Luke either wrote this “hymn” himself or found it and inserted it into the text? What else did Luke make up? I guess we should be thankful that Glory and Praise was not around in the first century.

What is up with this?

These kinds of footnotes used to drive me up the wall until I read the 1964 Pontifical Biblical Commission’s Instruction Concerning the Historical Truth of the Gospel. Fr. Joseph A. Fitzmyer provided us a great service with both his English translation of the Instruction and his critical introduction to it.

In it, Fitzmyer tells us, the Magisterium signaled the legitimacy of the method called form criticism, even though it rejected all of the modernist heretical philosophical and theological presuppositions of the form critics. In other words, the method itself is sound. I think you will agree once you hear the Magisterium’s reasoning. The Church did not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Form criticism

This method sees “three stages of tradition by which the doctrine and the life of Jesus have come down to us” (Instruction §VI).

The first stage is “the things that Jesus actually did and said, with the things that the chosen disciples saw and heard.”

The second stage in this tradition is “the testimony of the apostles and the accommodations which they made in their message to the needs of those to whom they preached.” The Commission informs us, Fitzmyer says, that “the apostles passed on what Jesus had actually said and done ‘with that fuller understanding which they enjoyed’ as a result of the experience they went through at the first Easter and the illumination of the Spirit of Truth at Pentecost,” while also accommodating their preaching to their various audiences (Instruction §VIII).

And the third stage—the longest discussed by the Instruction—is what the Evangelists actually set down in writing. Each Evangelist, according to the Instruction, chose a “method suited to the peculiar purpose which each one set for himself” and followed a process of “selection, synthesis, and explication” adapting his source material “to the needs of the readers.” Fitzmyer tells us, “Because the Evangelist often transposed episodes from one context to another, it is necessary for the exegete to seek out the meaning intended by the Evangelist in narrating a saying or deed in a certain way or putting it in a different context.”

What kind of truth?

Since the Evangelist redacted material from the first and second stages, the question arises, What kind of truth are we dealing with? Fitzmyer says the Instruction says the answer is “Gospel truth.” Fitzmyer quotes the Instruction: “From the results of the new investigations it is apparent that the doctrine and the life of Jesus were not simply reported for the sole purpose of being remembered, but were ‘preached’ so as to offer the Church a basis of faith and of morals” (Instruction §X), so that Gospel truth is not a matter of, in Fitzmyer’s words, “fundamentalistic literalness.”

In Fitzmyer’s view, what is most important in the Instruction is that “when all is said and done . . . the Biblical Commission calmly and frankly admits that what is contained in the Gospels as we have them today is not the words and deeds of Jesus in the first stage of tradition, nor even the form in which they were preached in the second stage, but only in the form compiled and edited by the Evangelists.”

Gospel truth

And this final point is the most important. While what the Evangelists gave us “reflects the two previous stages, and the second more than the first,” what we have received is what was inspired by the Holy Spirit and is “Gospel truth . . . free from error.” Fitzmyer tells us that “The opposite of inerrancy is not simply historicity but truth.”

So we are back to the Gospels as inspired by the Holy Spirit and inerrant in presenting the truth.

Back to those footnotes

So, correct me if I’m wrong, but what many of the notes in the New American Bible do is speculate about the provenance of certain Biblical passages, within this three-stage understanding of the development of the Gospel, without telling the innocent reader that this is what they are doing.

We, the faithful, would be much better off if these kinds of speculative notes were left to scholarly articles and not part of a Bible intended to be read by ordinary folks, let alone sixth graders, let alone young adults trying to make sense of the Faith in an environment so hostile to truth. It would be much better if the notes revealed the “Gospel truth” that the Gospels reveal.

Heretics or . . .

So, while some Biblical scholars have been heretics—the original form critics being one notable example—the scholars who have provided us the footnotes for the New American Bible are not. They are just imprudent.