Lori wrote:

Hi, guys—

I'm taking a Catholic Scripture class and I'm rather shocked at what is being taught. I'm hoping you can set me straight on the official Catholic teaching on the subject. The teacher is saying that
a lot of what is written in the New Testament is borrowed from other writings or is an invention of the author to make a point and that this is a literary style commonly used in that time.

For example, the story of Ananias and Sapphira being struck dead (Acts 5:1-11) is an invention of Luke to make a point about lying to God but was not meant to be taken as something that actually happened. The teacher has also proposed that many of the details of Matthew's infancy narrative i.e. Joseph's dream warning him to take the child to Egypt was borrowed from midrashic writings of the time and was meant to draw a closer parallel between Jesus and Moses rather than something that actually happened.

  • I know as Catholics we don't take the Bible quite as literally as Protestants, but does this fall in line with our Catholic teaching on the Bible?



  { Is my Scripture teacher correct in saying: A lot in the New Testament is borrowed or invented? }

Eric replied:

Hi, Lori —

What is being taught in this class is really not Catholic teaching, or the Catholic view on Scripture.

Based on the limited description you had the opportunity to offer, it would be unwise for me to draw hasty conclusions about what is being asserted in your class. Nevertheless, I can offer some potentially useful insights from the teaching of the Church, and refer you to Church documents that treat the topic more thoroughly.

First, we must exclude from Scripture any attribution of error. Pope Pius XII writes in his great encyclical on Biblical Scholarship, "Divino Afflante Spiritu", commenting on Pope Leo XIII's great encyclical on Biblical Scholarship "Providentissimus Deus":

3. The first and greatest care of Leo XIII was to set forth the teaching on the truth of the Sacred Books and to defend it from attack. Hence with grave words did he proclaim that there is no error whatsoever if the sacred writer, speaking of things of the physical order "went by what sensibly appeared" as the Angelic Doctor says, [5] speaking either "in figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even among the most eminent men of science." For "the sacred writers, or to speak more accurately — the words are St. Augustine's — [6] the Holy Spirit, Who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things — that is the essential nature of the things of the universe — things in no way profitable to salvation"; which principle "will apply to cognate sciences, and especially to history," [7] that is, by refuting, "in a somewhat similar way the fallacies of the adversaries and defending the historical truth of Sacred Scripture from their attacks." [8] Nor is the sacred writer to be taxed with error, if "copyists have made mistakes in the text of the Bible," or, "if the real meaning of a passage remains ambiguous." Finally it is absolutely wrong and forbidden "either to narrow inspiration to certain passages of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred," since divine inspiration "not only is essentially incompatible with error but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and constant faith of the Church." [9]

4. This teaching, which Our Predecessor Leo XIII set forth with such solemnity, We also proclaim with Our authority and We urge all to adhere to it religiously.
(Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pius XII, 1943, #3,4,)

Leo XIII had some harsh words to say about those who suggest the Gospels are full of fabricated stories:

But first it must be clearly understood whom we have to oppose and contend against, and what are their tactics and their arms. In earlier times the contest was chiefly with those who, relying on private judgment and repudiating the divine traditions and teaching office of the Church, held the Scriptures to be the one source of revelation and the final appeal in matters of Faith. Now, we have to meet the Rationalists, true children and inheritors of the older heretics , who, trusting in their turn to their own way of thinking, have rejected even the scraps and remnants of Christian belief which had been handed down to them. They deny that there is any such thing as revelation or inspiration, or Holy Scripture at all; they see, instead, only the forgeries and the falsehoods of men; they set down the Scripture narratives as stupid fables and lying stories: the prophecies and the oracles of God are to them either predictions made up after the event or forecasts formed by the light of nature; the miracles and the wonders of God's power are not what they are said to be, but the startling effects of natural law, or else mere tricks and myths; and the Apostolic Gospels and writings are not the work of the Apostles at all. These detestable errors, whereby they think they destroy the truth of the divine Books, are obtruded on the world as the peremptory pronouncements of a certain newly-invented "free science;" a science, however, which is so far from final that they are perpetually modifying and supplementing it. And there are some of them who, notwithstanding their impious opinions and utterances about God, and Christ, the Gospels and the rest of Holy Scripture, would fain be considered both theologians and Christians and men of the Gospel, and who attempt to disguise by such honorable names their rashness and their pride. To them we must add not a few professors of other sciences who approve their views and give them assistance, and are urged to attack the Bible by a similar intolerance of revelation.
(Providentissimus Deus: On the Study of Holy Scripture, #10)

A good document to read about how the Church understands the Gospels is the document
"The Historicity of Gospels" issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) in 1964.

You might also find interesting an interview with the head of the PBC on the topic of interpretation of Scripture. Another document that discusses more general principles about Biblical interpretation, issued in 1994 by the PBC, is called, "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church".

If you are taking a class on Scripture, I would highly recommend this work, which both praises modern methods of study while warning against certain tendencies to introduce unwarranted doubts about the text.

I hope this information helps. I wish I could better summarize it for you, since it is a lot of data, but you sound like you are very interested in studying the Scriptures and the Catholic approach to Biblical scholarship. Rather than imparting my own opinions and interpretations of Biblical scholarship on you, I will let you read what the Church has said and draw your own conclusions.

Yours in Christ,

Eric Ewanco

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