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Living Tradition, Oblates of Wisdom, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, MO 63157, USA
|No. 102||Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program||November 2002|
THE NAVARRE BIBLE COMMENTARY: THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS
The following review is taken from The Navarre Bible: The Gospels and Acts of the Apostles in the Revised Standard Version (of the King James Bible) with commentary by members of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Navarre (of Opus Dei), published by Four Courts Press, Dublin, and Scepter Publishers, Princeton, NJ, Reader's Edition, with an editorial committee for the English-language translation composed of James Gavigan, Brian McCarthy, and Thomas McGovern, first printed in English in the year 2000.
The Navarre Commentary on the Bible begins with the commentary on the Gospels, preceded by a General Introduction to the whole Bible and more specialized introductions to the New Testament, to the Holy Gospels, and afterwards to each individual Gospel. I have read the commentary on the three Synoptic Gospels along with the introductory essays, and I find that it comes out as a fine accomplishment, remaining solid and informational throughout, a tribute that cannot, in all respects, be equally accorded to the Navarre Commentary on the Pentateuch, which I hope to treat in a following review.
The General Introduction to the Bible takes a clear and consistent stand in stating that the "treasure of truths" contained in the Bible "is communicated by being linked to real events, God's intervention in history." Thus, the Commentators of the Navarre Bible from the outset move beyond the position of mere literary analysis of the sacred text to affirm that this text is based upon real historical events which are themselves related in the Bible. They aver, for example, that the first chapters of Genesis not only relate certain supernatural truths but also historical facts such as the creation by God of the heavens and the earth and the creation by God of mankind (p. 14). The Commentators state that the Bible is "the history of the salvation of man by God," that is "another history, as it were, wrought by God" (ibid.), which I understand to mean an area of true history within the one continuum of historical reality, and not, as many other commentators have maintained during the past two centuries, a largely fictional history unfolded in a separate and imaginary religious universe of discourse. The Commentators point out that, in things relating to the physical sciences, the sacred authors do not express, as from supernatural revelation, anything about "the inner constitution of the visible world," but simply use "the expressions and concepts of their own time and cultural surroundings" (p. 19). Nevertheless, the biblical accounts are concerned with "the merciful intervention of God in certain events of human history," with the result that "The foundations of Christian Revelation and the major dogmas are very firmly rooted in history" (ibid.). In other words, the merciful interventions of God are truly historical.
Regarding one's basic attitude in the approach to interpretation, the Commentators take the position that "the Bible, in its deeper sense, cannot be understood by somebody who does not believe in its divine inspiration and that it has God as its principal author," and that the absence of this awareness "cannot be compensated for by any human technique, whether literary, historical, philosophical or of any other kind" (p. 18). In our times, this is a watershed declaration, seeing that most historical-critics, who are the majority of biblical scholars today, tend to make the role of God either non-existent or an empty supposition having no real part in the writing of the sacred text. The Commentators have taken a position fully in keeping with traditional Catholic interpretation of the inspired text and basically in opposition to the mainstream of historical-criticism over the past two centuries and more. They go on to say: "The secrets of Holy Scripture are not unlocked only with the aid of linguistics, archaeology, sociology, psychology or any other human science, but rather by a desire to achieve personal holiness, and therefore in the light of God" (p. 21). They are saying that only by the light of faith fired by personal devotion to the one true God can an interpreter discover what realities the sacred text is expressing and why these realities are in the one continuum of reality. Regarding the search for truth and meaning, it is their point that "if we do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God, we will not be able to understand the Gospel" (p. 222). Those many historical-critics who proceed down the road of rationalism and professional pride end up only in deceiving themselves and in deceiving their readers. I am happy to see that the Navarre Commentators reject the rationalism underlying much of the historical-critical method, as where they say, with particular reference to Matt 10:13: "In interpreting this text, the first thing is to reject the view of certain rationalists who argue that Jesus was convinced that soon he would come in glory and the world would come to an end" (p. 115). It is my studied opinion that the proper frame of reference for perceiving the deeper sense of Sacred Scripture is the network of the Four Senses as explained by St. Thomas Aquinas and as utilized implicitly by the Fathers of the Church and by the inspired writers of Sacred Scripture themselves, and which is proposed for all interpreters of Sacred Scripture in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 115-119). The Navarre Commentators do not explicitly acknowledge this framework, but, in their commentary, they do make many isolated references to the deeper meanings of the sacred text, especially as expressed by various Fathers of the Church.
The Navarre Commentators feel confident to claim that the Four Gospels were written by Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, since "critical analysis of the literary features of the text and historical references in each Gospel support the unanimous, precise testimony of Tradition" (p. 29). This is certainly true, but it does not reflect the broad spectrum of biblical scholarship today as dominated by historical-critics. What has been presented over the past two centuries in the area of "critical historical scholarship" is the thinking of an historical-critical method that is neither truly historical nor sufficiently critical of its own method. The Navarre Commentators are relying on the more solid and realistic approach of the Fathers of the Church, of the medieval Catholic commentators, and of modern Catholic commentators whose method is uncontaminated by the false principles of the "historical-critical school." For the interpretation of the Gospels, the Navarre Commentators have thus taken a stand solidly in keeping with Catholic Tradition. They go on to say: "Down the centuries Christian Tradition shows that the historical character of the Gospels has been taken as an undisputed truth. [ . . . ] At the same time, the Church has always maintained that this historicity, which our faith assures us of, has also a solid basis in reason: competent historico-literary critical scholarship, even if pursued on the margin of faith, provided it really uses serious, scientific arguments, fully supports faith in the historical truthfulness of the Gospels" (p. 37). I would maintain that the historical character of the Gospels is a solid truth, but it is by no means an undisputed truth. The whole tendency of historical-critical scholarship goes against it, as is witnessed by the plethora of books and articles published in our times arguing against the historical character of the Gospels. So I would reword this last-quoted judgment of the Navarre Commentators to say that competent historical scholarship fully supports the historical truth of the Gospels, but the literary scholarship of the "historical-critical school," the prevailing school in our time, even within the Catholic Church, is not based on serious, scientific reasoning, and, therefore, its undermining of the historical truth of the Gospels is not to be taken seriously.
Rudolf Bultmann, in his famous History of the Synoptic Tradition (first German edition, 1921) presented what seemed to be overwhelming internal evidence for the almost total non-historicity of the Synoptic Gospels, and he followed this up with seemingly even greater evidence for the non-historicity of St. John's Gospel in The Gospel of John (English translation, 1971). It is to the discredit of Catholic biblical scholarship over the past eighty years that the mass of fallacious and unfactual material in these two works of Bultmann has never been systematically refuted. Thus we contrast the false and unhistorical approach of writers like Rudolf Bultmann, Martin Dibelius, Raymond Brown (The Birth of the Messiah, The Gospel according to John, The Virginal Conception and the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, etc., and a host of other historical-critics, with the solid approach of a Catholic writer like Giuseppe Ricciotti (Life of Christ, unabridged edition). The Navarre Commentators conclude as follows: "After the meticulous research the Gospels have been subjected to over the past two centuries, any serious critic must accept that the sacred books are true history." In the final analysis this judgment is true, but who are the serious critics? They certainly are not the scholars of the historical-critical school, whose method is rooted in the rationalism of the eighteenth century and who have worked assiduously to undermine the historical truth of the inspired Scriptures. What remains urgently to be done is to roll back the conclusions of the historical-critical scholars and disprove their fallacious reasonings. It was not necessary for the Navarre Commentators to express this work in their present commentary, but it should have been done elsewhere. We are told that this commentary is based upon many related articles and essays of the University of Navarre scholars. It would be interesting to see to what extent the fallacious writings of historical-critical scholars like Rudolf Bultmann, Martin Dibelius, Raymond Brown, and many others, have been thoroughly and systematically refuted in these related University of Navarre articles and essays. This important work of refutation still lies as a challenge to Catholic biblical scholarship, and the place to begin is from the elaboration of correct concepts of history and historical method and the substitution of the framework of the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture for the false historical and literary framework of the historical-critical school. When Marie-Joseph Lagrange in the 1890s introduced into Catholic biblical scholarship the historical-critical approach of Hermann Gunkel and his associates, he unfortunately overlooked the essential preliminary step of determining from the viewpoint of Catholic exegetical tradition what sound historical method is and how it needs to be used. Catholic scholarship is still suffering from that historic oversight.
The University of Navarre Commentators with competent insight point out that, while the Gospel writers wrote with the purpose of strengthening the faith of their readers, "that did not lead them to falsify events or neglect historical accuracy" (p. 38). Implied here is the important distinction between the finis operis (purpose of the work) and the finis operantis (purpose of the worker). In the case of the Gospels, the purpose of the work is to report events that really took place, while the purpose of the workers (the Evangelists) is also to strengthen the faith of their readers. Historical-critics are typically unaware of this distinction and tend systematically to exclude the likelihood of historical accuracy wherever they perceive or suspect an extrinsic purpose of the sacred writers, such as the desire to strengthen the faith of their readers, or to defend the faith, or to convey the deeper significance of an event. The Navarre Commentators go so far as to claim that "There are no grounds, therefore, for thinking that the Gospel story was the product of the fertile hyper-imagination of the first generation of Christians" (p. 39). It's true, there are no real grounds, but try to tell that to the many disciples of Rudolf Bultmann, the most celebrated Scripture scholar of the twentieth century, who meticulously, in his History of the Synoptic Tradition, tore the Synoptic Gospels to pieces and claimed to have definitively shown that practically all of the events recounted therein are the product of the fertile imagination of the first two or three generations of Christians. Sadly, no Catholic Scripture scholar has ever seriously taken up Bultmann's challenge by analyzing Bultmann's work line by line and showing it to be a mass of false conclusions.
In implicit opposition to the conclusions of Bultmann, Dibelius, Raymond Brown, and many others, the Commentators claim that "we know" that the Four Gospels are the writings of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and that, with regard to their authorship, "critical analysis" supports "the unanimous, precise testimony of Tradition" (p. 29). They are speaking of sound historical analysis and not the fallacious analysis of the historical-critical school.
In the course of their remarks, the Commentators take a definite stand in favor of the historicity of the cures and other miracles of Jesus that are recounted in the Gospels. Thus, they say, with reference to Matt 8-9, that Jesus "is shown as endowed with divine power over disease, death, the elements, and evil spirits," and that "these miracles worked by Jesus Christ accredit the divine authority of his teaching" (p. 100). I understand these affirmations to mean, not just that the sacred writer is trying to accredit the divine authority of Jesus by depicting Him as having divine power, but that the Commentators themselves as historians are attributing to Jesus this divine power, and, thus, that the Navarre Commentators have advanced beyond the merely literary analysis of historical-criticism to actual historical analysis integrated into the general picture of world history. And in this they are consistent elsewhere in their commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (cf. their remarks on Matt 9:18-26 and Matt 17:14-21).
At Mark 7:3-5, the Commentators quote the Second Vatican Council (Dei Verbum, 25), regarding the need of translations of the sacred texts "which are equipped with necessary and really adequate explanations." Well, this University of Navarre Commentary goes a long way toward providing an adequate explanation of the Synoptic Gospels, but, for the English edition, it is regrettable that they have had to use the Revised Standard Version of the King James Bible, rather than a suitable English translation of the New Vulgate, which Catholic biblical scholars have not undertaken to produce. (And the New American Bible is, in my opinion, no worthy alternative.)
At Mark 16:17-18, (listing kinds of miracles that would accompany those who would believe in the name of Jesus after he had ascended into Heaven), the Navarre Commentators take a further step in favor of the reality of miracles, where they say that "in the early days of the Church, public miracles of this kind happened frequently." They thus give real historical accreditation to the reporting of miracles in the text of Sacred Scripture.
In their "Introduction to the Gospel according to St. Luke," the Commentators quote a decision of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, dated June 26, 1912, to the effect that it is not lawful to doubt the inspiration and canonicity of Luke's accounts of the infancy of Christ (p. 328). This recourse to a decision of the (original) Pontifical Biblical Commission shows a respect for the exegetical tradition of the Church and makes the Commentary more trustworthy. The Commentators implicitly uphold the recording of true prophecy in the Gospels where they say that St. Luke's Gospel could have been written as early as 62 A.D. (p. 330), and, therefore, long before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Among the eyewitnesses that St. Luke could have consulted, the Navarre Commentators list the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostles, the holy women of Jerusalem, and some others (p. 339). This reference to our Lady as a possible source represents one of the best insights of our day, as more and more thought is being given to the role of Mary in the composition of the infancy narratives both of St. Mathew and of St. Luke. At Lk 5:ff., in a remarkably insightful statement, the Navarre Commentators recommend that we should take the canticles of Mary and of Zechariah in the infancy narrative of St. Luke "as being recorded exactly as they were spoken" (p. 340).
The Commentators also shed light on some issues of contemporary Christology where they affirm, at Lk 2:50, that "Jesus knew in detail the whole course his earthly life would take from his conception onwards." This fact rules out a lot of reductive historical-critical interpretation of the deeds and words of Jesus. In affirmation of the historical truth of the miraculous deeds of Jesus, the Commentary, at Lk 6:19, explains that "the cures and casting out of devils which He performed during his life on earth are also proof that Christ actually brings redemption and not just hope of redemption." In other words, redemption and the prospect of Heaven are historical realities, not objects of religious fantasy.
At Lk 6:20, the Commentators provide a convincing solution to many contradictions assumed by historical criticism in the variant wordings of the teachings of Jesus where they say that "it is very likely that in the course of his public ministry in different regions and towns of Israel Jesus preached the same things, using different words on different occasions (p. 390; cf. p. 426). And the Commentary offers traditional solutions to the seeming contradictions between the genealogies of Joseph in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. This is all grist for the mill of biblical apologetics and a credit to the Navarre Commentators.
However, I would differ from their assertion that the argument for the possibility that St. Luke gives the actual genealogy of the Blessed Virgin Mary "does not seem to have any good basis in the Gospel text" (p. 373, at Lk 3:23). I have examined this and four other solutions to the seeming contradictions between the two genealogies in "New Light on the Genealogies of Jesus" in Living Tradition 11 (May 1987), and I have found that the possibility of a Marian genealogy in Luke, while it is not proven, does not seem to lack some good basis in the Gospel text. Luke 3:23 says that Joseph was (or was supposed to be) the "son of Eli." Briefly, we know from extra-biblical tradition that Mary's father was named Joachim, and we know from biblical tradition that the names Joachim and Eliakim can be interchangeable (cf. 4 Kg [2 Kg] 23:34, or even Joachim and Eliachim (cf. Judith 15:9, Septuagint and Vulgate versions). Francis Xavier Patrizzi pointed out in 1873 that there is no example in Sacred Scripture to indicate that Eliakim (or Eliachim) can be shortened to Eli, seeing that Eli comes from a different Hebrew root. Patrizzi's argument seems convincing in the plain reading of Lk 3:23, but historical analysis indicates that Joseph and Mary would have had a good reason to make this change anyhow, so as to provide Joseph with a useful second genealogy, inasmuch as he had probably used the genealogy in Matthew to register as a descendant of David in the census at Bethlehem.
The Navarre Commentary on the Gospels stands fully in line with Catholic exegetical tradition in its affirmation that the Old Testament "bore witness to Christ by announcing his coming" in all of its books, "whether historical, prophetical, or wisdom" (p. 24). It goes on to say, at Lk 4:20-22: "Thus, the Old Testament can be rightly understood only in the light of the New." This is not only an important point for the interpretation of the Old Testament books as divinely inspired, it is also an important principle of historical method. Many historical-critics maintain that, in order to understand the books of the Old Testament properly, one must get away from New Testament viewpoints and place oneself back in the atmosphere of ancient Israel. This is a mistake, because historical understanding is insight that comes from looking back into the past from a knowledge of how past events actually turned out. One can understand the Old Testament only by knowing how, by the action of God, it turned into the New Testament
The Navarre Commentary is notable for the great number of sources from which it quotes. This includes many Fathers of the Church, many Church documents, and some medieval theologians. At Lk 5:12, it quotes from the Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew of St. Thomas Aquinas, a great work which, after more than seven hundred years, has still never been translated into English (or into other modern languages as far as I know). One unique source is the many quotations from the spiritual writings of the Founder of Opus Dei, Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer. These quotations are almost exclusively moral applications of texts of the Holy Scriptures, first of all for self-application to the lives of his own followers and then to the lives of the reading public in general.
As a further development of the Navarre Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, which is very good as far as it goes, I would like to see a more explicit and systematic use of the method of the Four Senses, as recommended by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 115-119). These senses are the literal, the allegorical, the tropological, and the anagogical. On the level of the literal and historical sense, the interpretation of the inspired text would require a systematic refutation of the false historical-critical arguments bringing with it many new insights into the subtle historical background of the text. One could say that a more self-appropriated framework of historical method would bring out more of the subtle historical dimension implicit at least ambiguously in the text. But this instrument is not the erroneous framework of rationalist historical research; it is rather a Catholic theory of history that was never elaborated by the great Catholic writers of the past, such as St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas, and which remains to this day to be developed.
The allegorical sense of Sacred Scripture regards especially the allegory of Christ and his Church. The Navarre Commentators note, with reference to the Gospel according to St. Matthew, that "the Church forms a background to the entire text" (p. 51). Yes, and this gives incentive to look for a structured pattern of allusions within the text that portray by extended metaphor the face of Christ and of his Church. This metaphorical level of meaning is frequently brought out in the writings of the Fathers of the Church and of the medieval commentators and needs to be rediscovered and reorganized on the basis of a previous fuller appreciation of the literal and historical sense. In fact, but in scattered fashion, the Navarre Commentators do bring out many allegorical meanings. For instance, at Mark 6:41, the miracle of the loaves and the fishes is interpreted by the Fathers as a figure of the Holy Eucharist. At Mark 11:13-14, the cursing of the fig tree is seen to have figurative meaning as the community of the Jews and as any soul barren of good works. At Mark 14:58, the Temple of Jerusalem is seen as a prefigurement of the body of Christ. At Lk 10, the Commentary quotes St. Augustine as identifying the Good Samaritan with Jesus and the waylaid man with Adam, the source and symbol of all fallen mankind. These and other references in the text of the Commentary bring out figurative meanings of the Gospel text, but I would like to see this done in a more organized and complete manner. Of course, there is limitation of space in a general commentary, and the Navarre Commentators could not quote all of the pertinent ideas, but there could be a greater presence of the allegorical sense. The writings of the Fathers are rich in these meanings as are those of the medieval theologians. And the many deep insights of Cornelius a Lapide and other great Catholic commentators of modern times down to the present find no mention at all in the Navarre Commentary.
The tropological sense has to do with the moral rebound of the objective truths presented in Sacred Scripture. There is a simple appeal and invitation of the literal sense to the heart of the believer, and this is the simple tropological sense. The Navarre Commentary, with its many citations from the writings of Saint Josemaría Escrivá, is strong in expounding simple tropological meanings of the sacred text. But there is also a moral allegory, which is brought out in a few citations within the Commentary. Thus, for example, at Matt 4:17, the Commentators point out that Jesus would show the Kingdom of God to be "a Kingdom of love and holiness." At Matt 11:12 ("the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence"), the Commentary quotes Clement of Alexandria to the effect that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs only "to those who fight against themselves." At Mark 1:26 (the curing of a possessed man), the Commentators see also in this man "those sinners who must be converted to God and freed from the slavery to sin and the devil." And at Mark 2:5, St. Jerome is quoted as seeing in the healing of a paralytic a figure of the healing of spiritual paralysis in general. And there may be other examples as well, but they are isolated and not integrated into a general framework of extended moral metaphor.
If one begins with a biblical idea like the Kingdom of God, it becomes obvious that this idea has at least four levels to it. In the Old Testament the Kingdom of God is presented as a theocracy in which the secular and the sacred are united and the promised rewards are mainly in this world. In the preaching of Jesus the Kingdom of God is first of all Himself and the Church that He is founding. Secondly, it is the presence of his sanctifying grace in the souls of the just and the supernatural virtues that spring from this grace. Thirdly, it is the empyrean Heaven of the blessed, the ultimate stage of the Mystical Body of Christ. These levels are the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture, and they have application in various figurative ways throughout both Testaments. An effort to bring out these Four Senses line by line throughout the Gospels would not succeed in every instance, but it would greatly illuminate and integrate commentaries on the sacred text. The last of the Four Senses, called anagogical ("leading upward"), focuses the mind upon the Heaven of the blessed. Under this sense we find the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity stamped upon the sacred text as a kind of personal signature and hallmark of the divine authorship, veiled in imagery in this life but to be clearly seen in the next. Here we see so many figurative representations and invitations to the Heaven of the blessed and the beatific vision, giving ultimate fulfillment to episodes of the literal sense. This must be a great search and a great undertaking on a path strewn with numerous insights and much valuable information from the sacred writers themselves, from the Fathers of the Church, from the documents and liturgy of the Church, from the spiritual tradition of the Church, and from many notable medieval and modern Catholic exegetes. The time to begin is now.