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No. 78 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program November 1998


by John F. McCarthy

        23. The definition of history.  Webster's Third New International Dictionary gives three relevant definitions of the word "history": a)"a narrative of events connected with a real or imaginary object, person, or career"; b)"the events that form the subject matter of a history"; c)"a systematic written account comprising a chronological record of events and usually including a philosophical explanation of the cause and origin of such events." We note from these three descriptive definitions that the word "history" can mean either a record of events or the events themselves and it can also mean a narrative of real events or of imaginary events. All of these meanings of history enter into the present discussion in ways that can only be recognized clearly on a more analytical level. Analytically speaking, history is "the past as such." The past does not have any ontological existence in itself; it is rather an idea in the mind of a thinker who, from the viewpoint of some chronological present is regarding objects in a real or imaginary chronological past. Thus, "the events that form the subject matter of a history" are objects that were first in the mind of an observer and then consigned to a record. Recorded events have existence always in relation to the mind of the one who recognized them, with the result that the outlook of the viewer has a formal effect upon how what was viewed has been understood by the viewer. History can be a narrative of real events or of imaginary events, and this is the great watershed of all history. Many people think of history as referring only to real events and of stories or tales as referring to imaginary events, but usage among modern biblical scholars has greatly obscured this distinction, especially because they have not included the concept of reality in their definition of science. The analytical difference between these two kinds of history, real and unreal, arises from the use or non-use of the idea of reality. "Science," in its most comprehensive sense, must be defined as "the knowledge of the real as such." This knowledge of the real as real can occur on a popular level or on a technical level. Accounts of past events recorded on a popular level reflect historical science on a popular level, if the observer and the writer adhered constantly to the concept of reality while avoiding digression into fancy or illusion motivated by a lack of common sense or by emotional involvements. On the other hand, accounts of past events that follow a disciplined and systematic adherence to the concept of reality reflect historical science on a technical level. It is our position that what constitutes the beginning of historical science is the intent to describe the facts as they really took place, and common-sense observers can succeed in this objective, even though they may not be able to recognize certain technical aspects of the events that they describe or be able to describe these events on the level of technical historical narrative. For instance, a good common-sense observer could accurately describe on a popular level how a serious automobile accident took place, even though he might not have recognized aspects of the happening that a policeman, a lawyer, a medical doctor, or a mechanic might have noticed.

        24.  A fundamental question of the present discussion is whether there is true history, that is, narration of real events, in the inspired text of Sacred Scripture. Did the writer of Genesis, did the writers of the Four Gospels write historical science in that they narrated events as they really took place? We disagree with Louis Bouyer where he says that "only with the Renaissance" did "a real science of history based on criticism of documents and facts take shape," both because the common-sense narration of real events is already historical science on a popular level and because the criticism of documents and facts existed long before the Renaissance and even in ancient times. Still, we agree with Louis Bouyer as he goes on to say: "But history, as a critical science, can establish, on the one hand, the inadequacy of historical explanations that would eliminate the data of faith; and, on the other, the accord between what faith tells us and what we can know with certainty about the facts accessible to science." 1 It is true that serious historians in ancient times did not have access to all of the facts or all of the methods that are available today, but neither were some of them, in particular the sacred writers and the historians of the Patristic era, impeded by certain rationalistic prejudices that tend to falsify the judgments of many modern historians.

        25.  Henry Elmer Barnes, in a standard reference article, tells us this about Patristic historiography: "The Christian `literati' set out to produce a synthesis of the past which would give due weight to the alleged glories of Hebrew antiquity and would, at the same time, show why the Jews were no longer worthy of their heritage, which had now passed to the Christians. ... The central actor was Jehovah, now the God of all the earth. ... Man's career on earth became a fall. ... In this Christian synthesis of world history, aside from the artificiality of its chronology and synchronisms, two characteristics are noteworthy, namely, the absurd relative importance attached to Hebrew history and the serious bias against pagan civilization which made an objective historical narrative well nigh impossible." 2 This judgment is not as neutral as it purports to be. The Fathers of the Church did not "produce" the idea that the heritage of the Jews "passed to the Christians"; this fact is clearly imprinted upon the New Testament itself. That man's career on earth became a fall is equally impressed upon the opening chapters of Genesis. If the one true God exists, as every true Christian believes and knows, then "Jehovah" is certainly the central actor of all real history, as the entire Bible makes clear, and, therefore, Hebrew history, as narrated in the Bible, is unquestionably special in contrast with the infidelity of pagan civilizations, not as civilizations but as pagan.

        26.  Since the mental framework of the historian influences his judgments about historical facts, the judgment that Barnes makes here about the historical outlook of the Fathers of the Church raises the question of what he thinks about the existence of the one true God. It seems that it is his rationalist bias against possible divine interventions that makes for him an objective historical judgment about Patristic historical method "well nigh impossible." He faults the early Christian writers with refusing to "assume towards the Hebrew creation tales" the critical attitude of Hecataeus toward Greek mythology, as though there were not an immense difference between the two, whence he concludes that for the Fathers, "if the obvious content of the inspired statement was preposterous and unbelievable, some hidden or inner meaning must be found, and, in response to this necessity, allegory and symbolism replaced candor and critical analysis as the foundations of historical method." 3 In this quotation Barnes simply assumes on rationalistic grounds that the inspired accounts are on a par with the dreams of pagan poets. A closer look at what the Fathers wrote would have shown him that they did not transpose into allegory what he calls preposterous and unbelievable. They accepted and defended the literal sense of the text, but without rationalistically presupposing that God could not have intervened in human history, and then they went on to expound the deeper sense of the same events.

        27.  Of course, rationalists deem miraculous interventions of the one true God to be unbelievable on the ground that such interventions are not in accord with the outlook of modern science. In assuming this attitude they are failing to recognize an important distinction. The purpose of natural science is to study physical and biological nature in terms of laws and theories which cannot go beyond the limits of created nature itself, so that, by very definition, divine interventions are beyond the bounds of its purview. Hence, natural science, as natural science, cannot recognize the past or present occurrence of divine interventions. But natural science is obliged to recognize the valid conclusions of other sciences, and historical science can recognize the supernatural and the miraculous. Why? The reason is that historical science has for its object whatever has really taken place; it's method is not limited to the bounds of the natural. And it is the purpose of historical method to ascertain what has really taken place, whether or not it can be explained according to the laws of nature. 4

        28.  Historical method basically involves four things: a) a technique of investigation; b) an ability to identify what really took place; c) knowledge of what others are affirming in one's own field, in cognate fields, and in allied disciplines; d) an ability to express correctly what one has ascertained. Historical critics place much emphasis upon their techniques of investigation, but they are usually not well informed on what non-rationalist exegetes and theologians have said or are saying about their area of research. Cecil Slade observes that the historian should give credence to what experts are saying in allied disciplines and presume their technical skill and intellectual honesty "unless there is strong evidence to the contrary." 5 And, he continues, as regards research into what actually happened, the historian's knowledge "is entirely dependent on the transmission of information from those living at the time, and this information forms what is known as the source material for the particular period or topic," or else he has access to "something, be it verbal, written or material that is the end product of an occurrence." Such traces are the facts of history, while "the actual occurrences are deductions from the facts." 6 He points out that "comparison with parallel source material and knowledge of current interpretation will normally show the historian whether his particular source can be presumed true, partially true or faked," but this supposes that the compared sources are truly parallel, which we deny in the case of Sacred Scripture. And he goes on to say that it is mainly in the forming of hypotheses and in the establishing of relationships that intellectual error can occur, because "the subjective element of the historian's personality" plays a role. 7 It is important in this study to determine more precisely what is meant by "the subjective element" of the historian, and we locate it in his mental framework, which is the proximate object of his knowledge and understanding, or in his emotional attachments.

        29.  The determining of what really took place is often a matter of controversy. and we must keep in mind that elaborate techniques of investigation are used both by historians and by pseudo-historians. Form-critics like Hermann Gunkel and Rudolf Bultmann had elaborate techniques of investigation and marked ability to express their outrageous theories in a manner that appears plausible and well organized, with the result that many secular historians accept the validity of their conclusions, also because these secular historians share the same rationalistic presuppositions. 8 Once the conclusions of a form-critic like Gunkel or Bultmann have been accepted by their colleagues in the same field, in this case by their fellow rationalist exegetes, and even more so when sympathetic secular historians have begun to accept them also, they become part of "accepted history," and are given an objective validity in the minds of the public at large. For Bultmann the general results of Gunkel's reasoning were already "accepted history," and for Gunkel the reasonings of Julius Wellhausen and of his predecessors in the liberal Protestant school were accepted as well. The overall result is that, in picking up the exegetical writings of Gunkel or Bultmann or of others in their school, one finds himself in the midst of a tangle of already accepted conclusions, and this makes rational analysis of their exegesis very complicated. Gunkel begins from the historical fact, supposed to have been demonstrated by Wellhausen, that Genesis is composed of bits of three earlier documents crudely sewn together. Similarly, Bultmann accepts as established fact, not only Wellhausen's documentary theory, but also Gunkel's theory that each of the units of Wellhausen's mosaic has a long prehistory of its own. These form-critics disagree among themselves on many minor issues, but they are uncritical of each other's work in the larger issues, because they all have an emotional commitment to the same rationalist presuppositions. These presuppositions pertain to "the subjective element of the historian's personality," and it is from them that there arises the likelihood of error both in their hypotheses and in their conclusions.

        30.  Acceptance or non-acceptance of the real existence of the one true God is the central issue of the whole discussion between neo-Patristic interpreters and historical-critics like Gunkel and Bultmann. Neo-Patristic exegetes recognize the past and present action of God in human history. This means that the awareness of the power of God is present in the neo-Patristic frame of reference, and this awareness enables neo-Patristic exegetes to study Sacred Scripture from a more realistic viewpoint than can those who have closed their eyes to this reality. And the eyes of neo-Patristic exegetes are open to the miraculous character of the Bible. The imposing array of form-critical demolitions of the inspired accounts falls away before the eyes of those who criticize form-critical reasoning with their eyes open to the full reality of the text. Form-critical reasonings do provide something: they provide a challenge to find answers, and, as answers are found, progress is made in the understanding of the Bible. Defense of the historicity of the biblical accounts is a challenge, and the discovery throughout the text of answers to the "unanswerable" objections of form-critics is a reward in itself, leading to the perception of new meanings in the Bible.

        31.  The form-criticism (Formgeschichte: literally "form-history) of Gunkel and Bultmann is a theory according to which the small units in the biblical crazy quilt postulated by Wellhausen are each supposed to have had a long history of development that can be unearthed by means of critical comparisons. Since these postulated units as well as the "legends" that were formed out of them are assumed to be imaginary stories, the real history that is thought to compose the object of "form-history" is not any true history presented by the sacred writers but is only the history of the development of the small units of imaginary history and the process by which they were sewn together into larger units and books 9 (see no. 21 above). Thus, Gunkel along with others of the "history of religions" school assumes that many of the stories narrated in the final text of Genesis were taken originally from imaginary stories about pagan gods and were gradually transformed by Hebrew poets into imaginary stories about an imaginary Hebrew God in relation to imaginary patriarchs who were projected as founders of the nation. Gunkel doesn't understand why believing Christians should be shocked by such an idea, since for him it is only a matter of understanding the literary genres of the stories, and he does offer the redeeming feature of an ongoing purification away from pure paganism in the biblical tradition, an intellectual ascent from belief in a plurality of imaginary gods to belief in a single imaginary God, 10 and of a gradual movement away from the basest pagan religious practices to higher moral ideals that appeal to people of our time and culture.

        32.  Let us take as a random example the origin of Abraham and Sarah as reported in Genesis 11:26-29, which reads as follows:

26And Terah (Thare) lived seventy years and begot Abram and Nahor (Nachor) and Haran (Aran).  27And these are the generations of Terah: Terah begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran. And Haran begot Lot.  28And Haran died before the face of Terah his father in the land of his nativity in Ur of the Chaldees.  29And Abram and Nahor took wives to themselves: the name of Abram's wife (was) Sarai; and the name of Nahor's wife, Milcah (Melcha), daughter of Haran, father of Milcah and father of Iscah (Jescha).

        33.  Gunkel distinguishes a "difficulty" in the passage in this that Abram, "the first-born and honored patriarch" of the Israelites, is presented as having married Sarai, whose name in Hebrew means "princess," while Nahor, who is secondary and outside of the Israelite tradition, is said to have taken to wife Milcah, whose name in Hebrew means "queen." The Hebrew poets who fashioned this account would hardly have imagined their patriarch as married to the lesser woman or to be lesser in station himself. Gunkel suggests that this problem would be resolved "if one were to assume the Babylonian origin of the names," inasmuch as the Hebrew name Sarah ("princess") resembles the Babylonian word šarratu ("queen"), while the Hebrew name Milcah ("queen") resembles the Babylonian word malkatu ("princess"). Gunkel notes that in Babylonian mythology Šarratu is the goddess-wife of Sin, the moon-god of the city of Haran, while Malkatu is the name of his daughter. Hence, reasons Gunkel, a story about the Babylonian gods may have been turned by Hebrew poets into a story about the founding of the Israelite people, with Abram substituting for the moon-god Sin. Gunkel eases the shock of this astounding revelation by assuring Christian and Jewish believers that the pagan origin of the story "would have been long forgotten in the current tradition." 11

        34.  Gunkel's reasoning appears to be weak. We are told in Joshua 24:2,14 that the persons mentioned in this passage were born in a pagan culture and served Mesopotamian gods. As real historical persons, they could easily have been given names relating to pagan gods, but, nevertheless, to match two-syllable combinations with two- or three-syllable combinations of a cognate language can be an extremely tendentious process leading wherever a researcher wants to go. (If the name Hermann superficially resembles the name of the pagan Greek god Hermes, does this give any grounds for suspecting that Hermann Gunkel may never have existed?) But Šarratu is not the name of the mythological queen-goddess of Haran; it is Nin-gal, while šarratu and malkatu are generic designations that could apply to any queen or princess. It is interesting also that Gunkel found no match in the Babylonian pantheon for Abram, who is the principal actor and center of the entire story. In fact, he admits elsewhere that the name Abram was not originally a divine name but was always a "simple personal name." 12

        35.  If one wishes to speculate on the origin of these names in relation to Genesis 11, a better hypothesis can be derived from the traditional reading of the passage, granted that some obscurity surrounds it, especially as regards the origin of Sarai, whose paternity seems to have been deliberately omitted. According to an ancient rabbinical tradition, recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus and based upon a comparison with Gen 20:12, Iscah and Sarai were the same person. 13 In Gen 20:12 Abraham says to Abimelech regarding Sarah: Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife." Now, this is understood to mean that Abram and Haran were born of the same father but of different mothers, and Abram later married the daughter of Haran, namely Iscah, who was Abram's half-niece, and whom in this episode he called "my sister" according to Semitic usage. Haran seems to have been rather young when he died (Gen 1:28), and he left two unmarried daughters whom Nahor and Abram took to wife, probably also out of family concern. But Abram appears to have been self-conscious of the fact that he had married his half-niece Iscah, and there is reason to conjecture that he may have preferred from the start to call her by the affectionate name "my princess," with the result that in the passage of time her original name was forgotten. Gen 17:15-16 tells us that the Lord God changed the name of Sarai to Sarah because from her son "kings of people shall spring." Gunkel seldom, if ever, consulted the Fathers of the Church, but Cornelius a Lapide, following the indications of Jerome, Ambrose, and others, explains this to mean that Abram's merely affectionate name for his wife, "my princess," was changed by God in view of the fact that royalty was being bestowed upon her blood. 14 Furthermore, Gunkel's reading that Abram was recorded as Terah's first-born son does not seem to be justified. We are told in Gen 17:17 that Sarah was ten years younger than Abraham. Comparing these verses, if Abraham had been the first-born son, Haran would need to have been no older than nine when he begot Sarah. It is more reasonable to conclude that Haran was older than Abram and, therefore, to read Gen 1:26 as making the point that Terah was seventy years old when he begot Abram (only), and stating in addition that he had already begotten Nahor and Aram. In this reading, Abram is mentioned first because he was to become the Patriarch of the Jews and because he is the central human figure of the following account. That the three sons are not listed in descending chronological order is unusual, but the reason for this is implied in the text. In conclusion, the more likely origin of the name Sarai in the marital affection of Abram removes the "difficulty" upon which Gunkel based his imaginary existence of Abraham and Sarah. Gunkel pretended to be speaking in the name of historical science, but archaeological discoveries in the twentieth century have confirmed the real historical existence of Abraham and of the other Hebrew patriarchs. 15

        36.  Catholic historical critics do not profess the rationalist presuppositions of Gunkel, Bultmann, and other representatives of the history-of-religions school, but they tend more to overlook these presuppositions than to refute them. Thus Richard Clifford, writing in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, neither defends nor denies the real historical existence of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, nor does he challenge unequivocally Gunkel's theory of the mythical origin of the patriarchal accounts. His overview is as follows: "Genesis is concerned with origins - of the world of human beings, of Israel in its ancestors. The time of the origin of a reality is a privileged moment in the ancient Near East; the original intention of Fate and the gods is clearer than at other times. In the beginning the impress of the creating gods upon a thing is still fresh and discernible." 16 We might ask ourselves as Catholics what "the intention of Fate and the gods" has to do with origins in the Book of Genesis, unless Clifford is simply unequipped to declare his independence from the theory of the pagan origins of these biblical accounts. Clifford goes on to say: "The second half of Genesis, 11:27-50:26, tells of Israel's origins in its ancestors. Abraham and Sarah labor under the same divine imperatives as the nations - to continue in existence through their progeny and to possess their land. Their way is different, however: by direct relationship to their God in trust." In this view Abraham and Sarah are like another example of pagan literature except that they have a "direct relationship to their God in trust." But trust is a subjective state of mind, and, in this ambiguous, if not tendentious, wording, the God of Abraham and Sarah could be just the imaginary national god of the Israelites as distinct from the imaginary gods of the nations. Clifford tells us that he doesn't know what Genesis authentically has to say: "The position taken in this commentary is that authentic stories of 2d-millennium ancestors have been revised and added to in the long course of their transmission; recovery of the `original' stories is impossible because of the lack of extrabiblical sources." 17 Predictably, Clifford takes no stand against the alleged "mythical" origin of Abraham and Sarah. 18

        37.  Bruce Vawter, in his reference article on Genesis in the New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, does venture to take a stand on the question of the real historical existence of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He says: "Genesis is presented by its author as a history, not simply as a collection of religious truths in narrative form. ... A recognition of the author's historical purpose must be our first principle of the interpretation of Genesis, a principle that applies, even though in different ways, to the history of origins in Gen 1-11 as well as to the Patriarchal History. ... What is certain is that older opinions that regarded the stories of the Patriarchs as disguised myths or the fictitious accounts of eponymous ancestors can no longer be critically held." 19 However, as an historical-critic, Vawter wavers between history and mythology in his explanations of the text of Genesis.

        38.  Catholic historical-critics have tended to accept many of the conclusions of the rationalist founders of form-criticism in the absence of a scientific apparatus for critically examining the presuppositions of the method. Thus, for example, Alexa Suelzer, in a reference article in the Jerome Biblical Commentary, reprinted with some modifications by John Kselman in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, identifies the rationalism of the history-of-religions school (notably Gunkel) with scientific method where she says: "For the most part the new discipline was conducted on positivist principles, i.e., principles subject to scientific verification. The goal of its research was fact uncolored by philosophical or theological interpretation. Biblical religion, consequently, was investigated on the same plane as other religions, for all religions were conceived to be a product of human culture." 20 In truth, the presuppositions of this school were contrary to historical fact, as we have illustrated above; the research of this school was colored by the philosophical principle of rationalism; and its investigation was guided by the false idea that the narratives of Genesis were the product of sheer religious imagination, proceeding from a subrational instinct prevailing in pre-modern man and copied essentially from the religious fantasies of the surrounding pagan cultures. Suelzer does not see any of these deficiencies in the history-of-religions methodology. In her evaluation of the form-critical method, Suelzer goes on to say: "By emphasis on oral tradition and by the utilization of the archaeological and literary materials of the Near East, it approached closer to the life situation that produced the biblical writings than did static literary criticism." 21 The truth is completely otherwise. Not only have archaeological studies negated the suppositions of form-criticism, but Gunkel and his colleagues, misled by the modernist idea that religion proceeds from a subrational religious instinct, entirely missed the life-situation of the biblical writers. For authentic form-critics, the events recounted in the Scriptures represent a copying with adaptations of earlier purely imaginary events conceived by the religious imagination. The life-situation from which the accounts in Genesis originated was supposed to be a state of mind of Hebrew folk-tellers so primitive that they could not even have made up the stories themselves but had to depend on adapting pagan stories. This notion of the "history" of the forms of the biblical narratives is itself a product of the imagination of its form-critical originators; it certainly does not represent what Suelzer calls "sober investigation." 22

        39.  In the parallel article on New Testament criticism, first published in the Jerome Biblical Commentary and republished with some modifications in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, John Kselman shows the same inability of Catholic historical-critics to identify the deficiencies of the form-criticism of the Gospels, as exemplified by its originators, K.L. Schmidt, Martin Dibelius, and, above all, Rudolf Bultmann. After an introductory tribute to "the great Old Testament scholar H. Gunkel," Kselman notes that Bultmann and other form-critics assumed that "the early Christians were not at all interested in history," and that, consequently, "the Gospels are not biographies, giving us a consistent historical picture of the life of Jesus, but reflections of the faith and life of the early church." Continuing to report what these form-critics assumed, Kselman goes on to say: "In fact, history was of so little concern to the early Christian community that they made no great distinction between the earthly history of Jesus and his postresurrectional history and presence with the church, to whom he still spoke by the Spirit. Without the strictures of history and with its assurance of Jesus' presence, the early church could freely adapt and even creatively add to the tradition, if the needs of the church for preaching, apologetics, worship, etc., so required." 23 Kselman sees a pronounced skepticism in Bultmann's method "in that he assigns most of the tradition to the creative imagination of the early Christian communities." 24 That Bultmann and his colleagues took this outrageous position is known to many, but what is striking about Kselman's resume is the absence of any effective criticism of this stance. For Bultmann and others, the "postresurrectional history of Jesus" is sheer religious fantasy, and this anti-Christian assumption should not go uncorrected. To allege that the early Christian church, with naive credulity in the "presence" of a factually dead Jesus and of an imaginary "Spirit," took upon itself to invent stories in order to accommodate its message to its preaching and apologetic needs is a calumny that cannot be accepted. Bultmann excuses the early Christians for these alleged lies on the ground that they were too intellectually immature to be able to lie, but this also is a calumny having no basis in historical fact. In this regard we might well attend to the words of William Foxwell Albright, one of the most renowned archaeologists of the twentieth century, where he says: "Only modern scholars who lack both historical method and perspective can spin such a web of speculation as that with which form-critics have surrounded the Gospel tradition. ... In dealing with the Gospels the historian cannot but see a profound difference between their contents and typical examples elsewhere of matter which has been long transmitted by oral tradition. What we have in them is rather a reflection of reports of eye-witnesses who were overwhelmed by the profound experiences and the extreme tension of mind and body through which they had passed. Men who see the boundary between conventional experience and the transcendental world dissolving before their very eyes are not going to distinguish clearly between things seen in the plane of nature and things seen in the world of spirit. To speak of the latter as 'hallucinations' is quite misleading, since nothing like them is otherwise known to historians or to psychologists. Here the historian has no right to deny what he cannot disprove. He has a perfect right to unveil clear examples of charlatanry, of credulity, or of folklore, but in the presence of authentic mysteries his duty is to stop and not attempt to cross the threshold into a world where he has no right of citizenship." 25 In A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Gutwenger summarizes the situation in the following words: "In the description of the literary form of the gospel units the form-critics have shown much shrewdness. But in their conclusions they are as arbitrary as possible. The whole theory of Dibelius and Bultmann is built on the supposition that the early Christians had no biographical interest in the life of Jesus and that a strange transformation of the portrait of Jesus occurred at a time when plenty of eye-witnesses were still alive. Sic volo. Sic jubeo. External evidence is absolutely neglected by the form-critics. Instead we meet with a welter of unfounded hypotheses put down as facts with a breath-taking naivety." 26

        40.  Kselman praises Bultmann for "combining immense erudition and scholarship with a profoundly pastoral desire to preach a meaningful and relevant message to his contemporaries in a world where faith is no longer easy." 27 This is a very superficial judgment for a Catholic exegete. Bultmann's "immense erudition and scholarship" fall away to nothing as one falsity after another is unearthed throughout his writings, and his "profoundly pastoral desire" is hardly pastoral when viewed in its full reality. In fact, Bultmann's pastoral situation was as follows. After claiming to have eliminated almost all of the historical reality from the Gospel accounts, and to have exposed the literal teaching of the Gospels as primitive religious fantasy unacceptable to modern man, he had to find some excuse for contemporary Christians to believe and for contemporary preachers to preach. He claimed to have discovered this reason in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, according to which a Christian could exercise his faith by using the message of the Gospels as an occasion to repeatedly choose his own self-authenticity, to seek over and over again "in the existential moment" and to grasp his own "authentic self" as a goal which he can never expect actually to achieve. This deceptive double-talk cannot be called pastoral in any meaningful sense; it is merely an excuse for having taken away by specious reasoning the real message of the Gospels. Hence, the only truly pastoral response to Bultmann is to refute every premise and conclusion of his biblical interpretation. Bultmann took the Lutheran notion of the radical separation of faith and reason to be an absolute separation of faith and reason, and he used this principle to negate the entire object of Christian faith. Believing Lutherans opposed this teaching of Bultmann in his day and they continue to oppose it today. On the Catholic side, an adequate response to Bultmann must include a clear demonstration that there is no such thing as the absolute separation of faith and reason.

        41.  One reason for which Catholic form-critics cannot adequately identify and refute the deficiencies of Bultmann's exegetical method is that they lack a sufficiently differentiated mental framework. Among the false principles underlying Bultmann's method are those of deism, naturalism, rationalism, and modernism. Bultmann absorbed these principles from the tradition in which he was educated and from his personal study, and they are expressed systematically in his various writings. 28 Catholic form-critics tend to ignore the influence of these principles and simply work with texts on a more superficial level, an activity which inevitably raises unanswered questions. For instance, Catholic form-critics halt their dissolving of the historical truth of the biblical text where a dogma of the Church would otherwise be attacked, not because their exegetical method calls for them to halt, but because the discipline of faith demands it. Bultmann has asked: "Once you have begun to demythologize the text, where can you draw the line?" Catholic form-critics have no good answer to that question; either they resign themselves to being inconsistent with the presuppositions of the method or they are tempted to begin thinking that perhaps the dogmas should be adjusted to fit the results of the method.

        42.  Catholic form-critics are for the most part, not sufficiently aware of their own framework of thought. Their borrowed method has been heavily influenced by the Kantian theory of knowledge, according to which the human mind knows only its own mental objects (phenomena) and cannot know extramental objects in themselves (noumena). In keeping with this philosophy, Catholic form-critics work, for the most part unreflectively, with what many modern thinkers call the "subject-object relationship," wherein the object is considered to be purely mental and only seems to reproduce extramental reality. Gunkel, Bultmann, Dibelius, and their colleagues worked within a mental atmosphere of shared rationalist presuppositions, and their goal was to produce from these presuppositions conjectures that would be deemed plausible enough to merit common agreement. Whether or not their conclusions corresponded with what non-Kantians call external reality made little difference to them, and, unfortunately, to one extent or another, Catholic form-critics often let themselves be drawn into that same Kantian atmosphere.

        43.  Neo-Patristic interpreters follow a theory of moderate realism, according to which the human mind does know external reality, but in terms of reconstructions within the mind itself, just as a telescope reproduces within itself an image of its object. They sharpen as best they can their mental images in order to be able to see the external objects more exactly. One important mental object is the very concept itself of reality, by which a thinker is able to adhere intentionally to external reality and to avoid conscious deviations into error or fantasy. We maintain that the biblical writers kept strict adherence to the concept of reality as they wrote their accounts. Bultmann's "literary forms" of the Gospels all pertain to the realm of fantasy; they are "literary" in the sense of "fictional." Catholic form-critics do try to distinguish a "historical base" for some of the Bultmannian forms, especially in the case of Gospel events related to dogmas of the Church, but the method does not allow these exceptions to look very convincing. When Catholic form-critics present their version of literary forms in the Gospels, they can never give a confident and decisive answer in the affirmative to the all-pervading question: "Are we dealing here with historical reality?" The presuppositions of the method simply do not permit a definitive answer in the affirmative. A better approach is to start with the Patristic division of literary genres into the historical, the poetic, the didactic, and the prophetic with their subdivisions. This division brings immediately into consideration the use or non-use of the concept of reality, not only in the text under study, but also in the mind of the scholar making the study. The historical genre, in this Patristic division of literary forms, has to do with what really took place both outside of the mind of the sacred writer and outside of the mind of the biblical scholar.

        44.  With reference to our experimental definitions of "history" (no. 23 above), we have concluded that the history which is the direct object of biblical research is not merely "the past," but is rather "the real past." Form-critics characteristically disregard this proper object and assume that Gospel history is, for the most part, a history of imaginary episodes or imaginary elaborations of purely natural events, as they really developed in the minds of successive narrators. This form-critical "history of imaginary events and invented sayings" has no justification in historical science, defined as "the knowledge of the real past as such." Certainly there is a history of the narration of the real events and real discourses recorded in the text of the Gospels and in the whole of Sacred Scripture, and there is need to study this history, but the creative fantasy attributed to the sacred text exists only in the minds of the critics. The Gospels are chronological records of real events, systematically written, even though not according to the technical conventions of modern historians. One unique systematic feature of biblical historiography is the simultaneous exposition of a literal sense and of a spiritual sense portraying figures and analogies of various kinds. To ignore this feature is to misconstrue the biblical genre. The Gospels are scientific writings on the level of common science, that is, of common sense, and they contain true representations of the events that they describe, even though they even deliberately refrain at times from the kind of material accuracy required of modern historians. While the sacred writers of both Testaments did not use all of the techniques of modern historical method, they did test their sources and they were aided in their writing by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Their awareness of the real existence and activity of God, which was far superior to the mundane awareness of later critics, gave them an advantage in the writing of history that has never been equaled or surpassed. Since to understand means to know a reality in terms of some other reality, no one can understand a text of Sacred Scripture who cannot relate what is written in the text to his own awareness of the presence of God. Every man, at every waking moment of his life, is interfacing with the real effects of God's presence, whether or not he is able to reflect on this fact. Hence, every exegetical method whose approach rules out the real effects of God's presence, not only as known to the mind of the sacred writer, writing under the influence of divine inspiration, but also as known or knowable to the mind of modern man, will tend to diminish rather than increase the biblical interpeter's understanding of Sacred Scripture.


1. L. Bouyer, Dictionary of Theology, p. 205.

2. H.E. Barnes, "History, Its Rise and Development," in the Encyclopedia Americana, vol. 14, p. 210.

3. Barnes, ibid., p. 211.

4. Cf. McCarthy, The Science of Historical Theology , p. 117.

5. Cf. C.F. Slade, "History: Methodology," in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 11, pp. 541-542.

6. Ibid., p. 541.

7. Ibid., p. 542.

8. Since form-criticism is the most common contemporary expression of historical-criticism and has inherited all of the former methods of higher-criticism, in this study I have concentrated attention upon the form-critical method.

9. "It has already been described above how individual stories first were attracted to one another and finally how larger groups of legends were formed. Collectors also created connecting pieces. ... It is difficult to determine the extent to which the main groups our Genesis now contains already existed in oral tradition. It seems certain, however, that the fusion of these groups, that is, the primal narratives, the patriarchal legends, the Joseph narrative, and the following account of Israel's Exodus, was first the product of written collections. ... The literary collection of legends was not accomplished by one hand or in one period, but by several or even many in a very long process. We distinguish two periods in this process: the earlier for which we thank the collections of the Yahwist (J) and the Elohist (E), then a later, comprehensive reworking by the so-called priestly codex (P). ... The distinction of these three `documentary sources' of Genesis is a common result of a century and a half of Old Testament scholarship. ,,, The final decisive turn in the history of Genesis criticism was the work of Wellhausen, who taught us in his masterpiece Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels to determine the sources of Genesis chronologically and to locate them in the total course of the history of Israel's religion" (Gunkel, Genesis, p. lxix).

"The most important and far-reaching work in the field of synoptic research since Wrede has been done by Wellhausen. ... Wellhausen stated very clearly the fundamental assumption that the tradition consists of individual stories or groups of stories joined together in the Gospels by the work of the editors. ... In these circumstances it was inevitable that the analysis of the synoptics into literary sources should give way to an attempt to apply to them the methods of form-criticism which H. Gunkel and his disciples had already applied to the Old Testament. This involved discovering what the original units of the synoptics were, both sayings and stories, to try to establish what their historical setting was, whether they belonged to a primary or secondary tradition or whether they were the product of editorial activity" (Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, pp. 2-3).

10. In studying the literary genre of form-critical exposition, one should not make the mistake of assuming that, because form-critics follow the literary convention of using a capital letter in referring to the Hebrew and Christian God, they are necessarily implying that the Hebrew and Christian God really exists.

11. Cf. Gunkel, Genesis, p. 162.

12. Gunkel, Genesis, p. 157.

13. "Aran left a son Lot and daughters Sarra and Melcha ... Nachor married his niece Melcha, and Abraham his niece Sarra" (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, in Josephus [Harvard Univ. Press: Cambridge, Mass., 1930], vol. 4, p. 75. "... for she was his brother's child" (ibid., p. 105).

14. Cf. a Lapide, Great Commentary, at Gen 17:15.

15. "Who were the Hebrew Patriarchs? ... Some formerly held that the Patriarchs were really depotentized gods who were transformed by legend into human beings and lost their divine characteristics. Others have thought that, in the course of many centuries of story-telling, the Hebrew Patriarchs came to reflect early ethnic movements. Thanks to our present evidence [1967], it is certain today that the Patriarchs were indeed human beings who were the heroes of stories handed down from the Patriarchal Age" (W.F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan [Athlone: London, 1968], p. 56).

16. J. Clifford, "Genesis," in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 8A.

17. Clifford, ibid., p. 9A.

18. Cf. Clifford, ibid., p. 19A.

19. B. Vawter, "Genesis," in the New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture," p. 168. An "eponym" is "a real or imaginary person for whom something is named," so that "eponymous" means "giving one's name to a place, institution, syndrome, or disease" (Webster's).

20. A. Suelzer, "Modern Old Testament Criticism," in the Jerome Biblical Commentary (1968), p. 596B; in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990), p. 1120A.

21. Suelzer, in the JBC, p. 599B; in the NJBC, p. 1123A).

22. Suelzer, in the JBC, p. 597A); in the NJBC, p. 1120A.

23. J.S. Kselman, "Modern New Testament Criticism," in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 14; in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 1137.

24. Kselman, in the JBC, p. 15A; in the NJBC, p. 1138B.

25. W.F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (Johns Hopkins Press: Baltimore, 1957), pp. 387 and 390.

26. E. Gutwenger, "The Gospels and Non-Catholic Higher Criticism," in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (1953), p. 759B.

27. Kselman, "Modern New Testament Criticism," in the JBC, p. 14B; in the NJBC, p. 1137B.

28. A notable expression of the idealogy inspiring Bultmann's exegetical work is his essay, "Neues Testament und Mythologie," first published in German in 1941, and republished in English as "New Testament and Mythology" in H.W. Bartsch, ed., Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate (vol. 1, SPCK: London, 1953). For a brief exposition of Bultmann's overall plan, see "The Goal of Demythologizing," in J.F. McCarthy, The Science of Historical Theology, pp. 5-9 and 101-102). For a critique of this plan see McCarthy, ibid., pp. 102-140.

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