The National Catholic Review
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Several years ago I gave a talk on the Book of Genesis to a full parish hall. After explaining that Chapters 2 to 11 are traditional stories rather than historical reports, I was confronted by an angry questioner: If these stories are fables, then what can we believe? What about Moses? What about the resurrection? Is the Bible true or isn’t it? More recently, I addressed a group of professional theologians. To my surprise, several asked the same question, though with less anguish and in different words.

 

This year, the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s “Constitution on Divine Revelation” (Dei Verbum) seems a good time to reflect on the reliability of the Scriptures. Did the events they describe really happen? Are they true? Dei Verbum intends, after all, that the faithful nourish themselves on the word of God, not be confused by it.

Three Principles

First, there is no single principle of interpretation that covers all cases of disputed historicity. What one says about Adam and Eve or the flood does not necessarily apply to the Abraham stories, the exodus plagues, the miracles of Jesus or the resurrection. Consequently, one need not fear a domino effect. The Bible, to use another metaphor, is not a house of cards.

Second, one must pay attention to literary type or genre. When we read a newspaper, magazine article or book, we instinctively know its genre because we are at home in our culture. We sense the difference between the sports page and the editorials, a short story and a political analysis, a textbook and a mystery novel.

Not so with the literature of the past. As L. P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” We have to pause at the threshold of an ancient text and discover its genre; only then can we know what to expect. Obvious though this may seem, readers of the Bible often forget it. At a critical time in modern Catholic interpretation of the Bible, Pope Pius XII insisted on this very point: Interpreters must “accurately determine what modes of writing, so to speak, the authors of that ancient period would be likely to use, and in fact did use” (Divino Afflante Spiritu, No. 20).

Third, biblical authors prefer narrative over analytical reasoning; they would rather tell a story than write a treatise. Even the seemingly timeless symbols of the Bible—the divine shepherd, the city of Zion, the cross—have implied narratives that ground them and give them their power. In our culture, we tell stories to entertain or to illustrate a point. In biblical culture, thinkers did their philosophy and theology through artful storytelling.

To illustrate these three principles, I have selected one text from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament.

A Controverted Old Testament Text

Genesis 2-11 presents Adam and Eve and their sin (Ch. 2 and 3), Cain and Abel and the origin of culture (Ch. 4), a genealogy of long-lived heroes (Ch. 5), the flood and the repopulating of the earth (Ch. 6-10), the Tower of Babel (Ch. 11), and a final genealogy funneling down to Abraham. Throughout the ages, Jews and Christians have looked to these chapters to understand God’s purpose in creating the world, the nature and destiny of human beings and the root causes of sin and disorder. For much of that time, readers assumed unreflectively that the chapters were “historical,” that is, they described the actual creation of the world.

In the Renaissance period, however, the Bible, like other ancient texts, began to be subjected to critical and even skeptical scrutiny. Critics asserted that the Bible was self-contradictory and fraudulent; its defenders boldly asserted that it was “historical” because it accurately described past events. Perhaps the most memorable of such defenders was the Anglican Archbishop James Ussher, who in 1650 calculated from Genesis and other sources that God created the world on Sunday Oct. 23, 4004 B.C., beginning at sunset on the 22nd.

Ussher’s literalism lives on today only in ultra-conservative Christian and Jewish circles. Still, while most people read Genesis for its inspired theological reflections, they remain somewhat puzzled by questions of historicity: Did Adam and Eve exist? Was there a flood? Did Abraham actually live to the age of 175? The Catechism of the Catholic Church is surprisingly, and quite uncharacteristically, literalist in its analysis of these chapters. Though properly insisting on the significance of the sin of Adam “for the whole of human history,” the catechism assumes that it was “a primeval event” (No. 390).

What kind of literature is Genesis 2-11? What is its genre? Today we can confidently answer that the chapters are a “creation-flood story,” several examples of which have been found in ancient Mesopotamia (today Iraq) and elsewhere, including the Sumerian flood story, the tale of Atrahasis, Tablet XI of Gilgamesh, and an account in the work of the Greek writer Berossos. The plots of the stories are similar: the gods create a world; some kind of fault (divine or human) spoils things, with the result that the gods send a flood to destroy it; the god of wisdom alerts his client (variously named Ziusudra, Utnapishtim, Atrahasis or Noah) to build a boat and ride out the flood; after the flood, the gods build a new world without the miscalculations that marred the first one. (In the Bible there is no divine miscalculation.)

To the biblical authors, the creation-flood story served as a narrative template for expressing their distinctive vision of God and the world. In crafting their own version, they were startlingly original, affirming that God freely created the world and gave the human race an honored place within it, that humans represent (that is, “image”) God in the world, and that God honors humans’ faithfulness and punishes their sins.

The chapters are not, therefore, historical in the sense that the events recounted therein actually occurred. They offer, rather, an inspired story of origins, a narrative exploration of profound questions undertaken by speaking of the first appearance of human realities and institutions.

A Controverted New Testament Text

Then [Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, raised his hands, and blessed them. As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven. They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God.

Luke 24:50-53, (N.A.B.)

The historicity of the resurrection of Jesus is a modern disputed question. Luke 24:50-53 can raise problems for modern readers not only because it describes the resurrection (in its “ascension” aspect), but also because it differs from Luke’s other account of the ascension in Acts 1:1-12. Can we trust the text?

By modern standards of history writing, Jesus’ ascent to glory at the Father’s right hand is indescribable, in that it transcends human history. Seemingly sensing this, Luke sought “non-historical” means to depict it. In Elijah’s ascension in a whirlwind in 2 Kings he found a useful scriptural analogy. “The Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven” (2 Kgs 2:1) before he goes, Elijah grants his disciple Elijah’s request, “May I receive a double portion of your spirit?” (2:9). The venerable event of Elijah being “taken up” becomes a way to validate the event of Jesus’ ascension. It also serves as a means to interpret the new event’s significance. As Brendan Byrne explains in The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel (2000), Jesus’ “personal ministry on earth comes to an end.... But his power and presence will continue on the earth when in due course the Spirit empowers his disciples to take up his mission.” By drawing on the story of Elijah, Luke underscores the giving of the Spirit to the disciples. Byrne continues: “This is what the otherwise fantastic episode of the ascension signals to readers steeped in the biblical tradition. Here least of all are we dealing with a narrative purporting to depict a historical event.”

As noted, Luke’s other account of the ascension, in Acts 1:9-11, tells a different story. Instead of the ascension taking place on the same day as the resurrection, as in Luke 24:50-53, the ascension takes place after 40 days. Why the discrepancy? I suggest that the differences are the result of Luke employing different scriptural traditions for different aims. Acts uses the symbolic number 40, the number of years Israel spent in the wilderness preparing to enter the Promised Land. This allusion suggests that Jesus had prepared his disciples for living in a new stage of the divine plan, the time of the church. The Gospel, on the other hand, is intent on the outpouring of the Spirit that enables the disciples to do what the master did. In both versions, Luke is not writing history in the modern sense but aligning the new event with venerable Old Testament stories so as to validate and interpret that new event. He freely selects, omits and alters details—all to help his audience understand what the ascension means for them.

Suggestions

Historicity is not the same as biblical truth. The historicity of events in the Bible must be judged case by case. How should preachers and teachers handle biblical texts that might invite puzzlement or even skepticism from a congregation? I offer the following suggestions.

• Focus on “what the sacred author intended,” as the 1964 Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels insisted. An excellent illustration of this principle is the liturgical introduction to the Gospel, “A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke.” “According to” says much in two words.

• When teaching a difficult text, inform your audience immediately what kind of text it is (its genre). In teaching Genesis 2-11, for example, one might say, “Today we will look at some ‘stories of origin,’ which people of the time used to explore fundamental questions such as God’s purpose in creating, how divine justice operates in an often sinful world and what the grounds of hope are in such a world.” Further explanation is probably not necessary.

• In preaching on the Resurrection, make clear that human language can express only partially a stupendous act that transcends ordinary history. To explore its significance more fully, the sacred writers used analogies from the Scriptures (the Old Testament) to validate and interpret this new event, and employed their expository skills with the primary aim of eliciting wonder and faith in their hearers.

Richard J. Clifford, S.J., is professor of biblical studies at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., and former president of the Catholic Biblical Association. Recent books include Wisdom Literature, Proverbs (

Comments

Min. Ronald Cole | 7/3/2009 - 5:55pm

I happened across your article while preparing my dissertation on the feeding miracles of Christ. Blamires argues that the church faces a weakness due to attempts to compromise with secular modes of thought (Blamire, 2005).  Frame adds that God speaks through His prohpets, apostles in such a way that their word is truly His. Attempts to satisfy all questions of infinite knowledge with finite data is doomed for failure from the start. Any spin on the Word of God other than divine revelation is no spin at all. For instnace, the Virgin Birth: if we try to alter, logically display, put in a computer program Biblical information to meet man's understanding, then all truth is lost, the Bible admits that all truths are not for man to understand, some are God truths. Because people cannot comprehend all of the Bible is the way it should be, if not  explain the Sun, Planets, beyond where I eyes can see, life, birth the human body a nd of course the mind that harbors our intellect, feeling and consciouness. Did it really happen, yes it did and whether histocricy or dispensation or transcedental adaptation are clues to make the word logical, I'm not buying it! There are no falacies or discrepencies in the Word of God, it is all true and by Faith, take it all or take none of it, we live by it.

I think we both agree that if we ignore His power, ignore the awareness of God in the word, His Divine omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence, this is a power (Frame, 2002) "we dare not trifle', for Christ the mediator of all God's speech, He is the Word, ultimate mediator, one mediator between God and man and in Him there is no failure, no fault, only ultimate truth...so every word is valid, fact and divine..yes it all happened!

Father Judge | 10/22/2008 - 4:27pm
Dolan project
Robert Stewart | 1/8/2006 - 9:31pm
Dear Editor:

What Father Richard Clifford, S.J. had to say has, unfortunately, not been said often enough, in my opinion. My suspicion is that there is still a significant amount of ignorance among Catholics regarding the Church's approved approach to interpreting the Bible; and the "angry questioner" referenced by Father Clifford is probably a fairly common response to Catholic biblical scholarship when programs regarding biblical interpretation are presented in parishes.

My suspicion regarding this matter of misunderstanding the Church's sanctioned approach to interpreting the Bible was heightened a few years ago, when our local diocesan newspaper permitted an angry article regarding the work of the late Father Raymond Brown and other contemporary Catholic biblical scholars to be printed. I honestly do not think the local bishop knew the article was to be printed (may be giving him too much credit), since after it was brought to his attention there have been no such subsequent articles appearing in his newspaper. However, there was never an effort on the part of the diocesan newspaper to clarify the matter, nor was there any subsequent apology that the name of Father Raymond Brown (a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission under Popes Paul VI and John Paul II) had been maligned by some very ignorant people.

Thanks for the making the article available, and let's have more of the same, please!

Regards,

Robert Stewart

Marilyn M. Kramer | 1/13/2006 - 5:17pm
May I suggests that the Genesis creation stories are teaching parables first told by a small, relatively isolated group of prehistoric people who believed theological truths had been revealed to them and who tried to convey these truths to succeeding generations through oral story telling. The first creation story proclaimed there is only one God who created all things including humankind, although he created humankind in his own image which set humans apart as different from the animal world even though they were created as part and parcel of that world.

These ancient people lived in close proximity with each other and with the natural world on which they depended for sustenance. To survive they had to learn to live at peace with each other and with their environment. As a result, they came to understand their nature as humans on a very fundamental level.

In the second story, they tried to depict their understanding of what it meant to be created in the image of the Creator by describing how they differed from the animal world: 1/ Creative intelligence, symbolized by the naming of the animals. 2/ Differences in emotional makeup and needs, particularly the need for nurturing mutually caring relationships beginning with the parent/child relationship to the enduring, adult bonded man/woman sexual relationships that they experienced as significantly different from the brief, nonbonded male/female reproductive relationships they observed in the animals, all symbolized by God dividing humankind into man/woman genders destined to reunite as husband and wife. 3/ Unlike the animals whose behavior appeared to be guided by internal limitations to prevent self-destructive behavior, they realized they lacked (and needed)such limits to guide their behavior, symbolized by God passing a law. 4/ An awareness of the "self" as an individual decision-makaing being with particular physical, intellectual, and aesthetic/emotional dimensions and needs, symbolized when Eve examined the usefulness of the forbidden fruit. 5/ The drive for self-interest, symbolized by the lying serpent and by the actions of Adam and Eve. 6/ The capacity for caring and sharing behavior beyond the kinship/infant scope exhibited by the animals, symbolized by Eve's act of sharing the fruit with Adam. 7/ Decision-making brain capabilities, symbolized by Eve's weighing the pros and cons of the fruit. 8/ The non-bonded man/woman relationships that sometimes exist, symbolized by the absence of any response by Adam to Eve's gift except to blame her for his own failure to conscientiously make his own decision. Adam's failure prevented them from experiencing the value of mutually caring relationships. 9/ Trust in God's love is vital if we are to avoid evil. Because Eve believed the serpent when he ascribed his own self-promoting motive to God, she did not trust God to ever give them the knowledge of good and evil she thought they needed, and she took the fruit. If either Eve or Adam had trusted God's love, they might have realized that a loving God would give them the knowledge they needed as they became ready to understand and use it wisely for good not evil. Immediately after partaking of the fruit, they saw the depth of self-centeredness in their natures. They tried to hide their true nature from each other and from God -- just as we do today. But the damage was done. Knowing only of evil and unable to trust, they were no longer fit to live in the state of perfect loving God had created for them. They were banished to live, emotionally estranged, in the natural world with its grief, suffering, trials, and challenges where they could learn from their experience to trust God's love for them, learn the value of love, and learn how to love in ways that nurture trust and preserve mutually loving relationships. (Perhaps the perfect state of loving is not our origin but our destiny when we leave behind our bodily form with its bodily self-concern and<

Patrick Coburn | 12/21/2005 - 12:35pm
Bravo on a very fine and timely article. I would only add that it would good to emphasize the dangers of trying to retrofit our concept of "history" - as defined by this technologically advanced society - to ancient societies. We can send pictures instantaneously across the globe, ancient societies did not begin to record an accurate image of a person until the 4th or 5th century BC. We record everything about a person, and can save it forever, ancient peoples would not even record the date on which they were born. We cannot apply our definition of history when talking about writings made 3,000 years ago.

Dee Butler | 2/21/2007 - 1:42pm
I read with interest David L. Martinson’s article, “The Media, the War and ‘Truth’” (1/2), about the challenge to journalists to report truthfully about our government, the war in Iraq and the events in our country.

It struck me as ironic that the same situation exists in our church. Catholic journalists are not free to report truthfully about the problems in our church. This is all the more scandalous in a church that preaches it has the truth for all of humankind. Let’s pray our problems will be addressed truthfully and healed in this new year.

I have always looked to America to report the truth in its articles. I felt it was the one place where there was no “spin.”

On a better note, I was happy to see the article on historicity in the Bible by Richard J. Clifford, S.J., (1/2). We need more of these on Bible study and background.

Robert Stewart | 1/8/2006 - 9:31pm
Dear Editor:

What Father Richard Clifford, S.J. had to say has, unfortunately, not been said often enough, in my opinion. My suspicion is that there is still a significant amount of ignorance among Catholics regarding the Church's approved approach to interpreting the Bible; and the "angry questioner" referenced by Father Clifford is probably a fairly common response to Catholic biblical scholarship when programs regarding biblical interpretation are presented in parishes.

My suspicion regarding this matter of misunderstanding the Church's sanctioned approach to interpreting the Bible was heightened a few years ago, when our local diocesan newspaper permitted an angry article regarding the work of the late Father Raymond Brown and other contemporary Catholic biblical scholars to be printed. I honestly do not think the local bishop knew the article was to be printed (may be giving him too much credit), since after it was brought to his attention there have been no such subsequent articles appearing in his newspaper. However, there was never an effort on the part of the diocesan newspaper to clarify the matter, nor was there any subsequent apology that the name of Father Raymond Brown (a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission under Popes Paul VI and John Paul II) had been maligned by some very ignorant people.

Thanks for the making the article available, and let's have more of the same, please!

Regards,

Robert Stewart

Marilyn M. Kramer | 1/13/2006 - 5:17pm
May I suggests that the Genesis creation stories are teaching parables first told by a small, relatively isolated group of prehistoric people who believed theological truths had been revealed to them and who tried to convey these truths to succeeding generations through oral story telling. The first creation story proclaimed there is only one God who created all things including humankind, although he created humankind in his own image which set humans apart as different from the animal world even though they were created as part and parcel of that world.

These ancient people lived in close proximity with each other and with the natural world on which they depended for sustenance. To survive they had to learn to live at peace with each other and with their environment. As a result, they came to understand their nature as humans on a very fundamental level.

In the second story, they tried to depict their understanding of what it meant to be created in the image of the Creator by describing how they differed from the animal world: 1/ Creative intelligence, symbolized by the naming of the animals. 2/ Differences in emotional makeup and needs, particularly the need for nurturing mutually caring relationships beginning with the parent/child relationship to the enduring, adult bonded man/woman sexual relationships that they experienced as significantly different from the brief, nonbonded male/female reproductive relationships they observed in the animals, all symbolized by God dividing humankind into man/woman genders destined to reunite as husband and wife. 3/ Unlike the animals whose behavior appeared to be guided by internal limitations to prevent self-destructive behavior, they realized they lacked (and needed)such limits to guide their behavior, symbolized by God passing a law. 4/ An awareness of the "self" as an individual decision-makaing being with particular physical, intellectual, and aesthetic/emotional dimensions and needs, symbolized when Eve examined the usefulness of the forbidden fruit. 5/ The drive for self-interest, symbolized by the lying serpent and by the actions of Adam and Eve. 6/ The capacity for caring and sharing behavior beyond the kinship/infant scope exhibited by the animals, symbolized by Eve's act of sharing the fruit with Adam. 7/ Decision-making brain capabilities, symbolized by Eve's weighing the pros and cons of the fruit. 8/ The non-bonded man/woman relationships that sometimes exist, symbolized by the absence of any response by Adam to Eve's gift except to blame her for his own failure to conscientiously make his own decision. Adam's failure prevented them from experiencing the value of mutually caring relationships. 9/ Trust in God's love is vital if we are to avoid evil. Because Eve believed the serpent when he ascribed his own self-promoting motive to God, she did not trust God to ever give them the knowledge of good and evil she thought they needed, and she took the fruit. If either Eve or Adam had trusted God's love, they might have realized that a loving God would give them the knowledge they needed as they became ready to understand and use it wisely for good not evil. Immediately after partaking of the fruit, they saw the depth of self-centeredness in their natures. They tried to hide their true nature from each other and from God -- just as we do today. But the damage was done. Knowing only of evil and unable to trust, they were no longer fit to live in the state of perfect loving God had created for them. They were banished to live, emotionally estranged, in the natural world with its grief, suffering, trials, and challenges where they could learn from their experience to trust God's love for them, learn the value of love, and learn how to love in ways that nurture trust and preserve mutually loving relationships. (Perhaps the perfect state of loving is not our origin but our destiny when we leave behind our bodily form with its bodily self-concern and<

Patrick Coburn | 12/21/2005 - 12:35pm
Bravo on a very fine and timely article. I would only add that it would good to emphasize the dangers of trying to retrofit our concept of "history" - as defined by this technologically advanced society - to ancient societies. We can send pictures instantaneously across the globe, ancient societies did not begin to record an accurate image of a person until the 4th or 5th century BC. We record everything about a person, and can save it forever, ancient peoples would not even record the date on which they were born. We cannot apply our definition of history when talking about writings made 3,000 years ago.