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The Bible and the Church

Eamonn Keane 

During November 1999, I was privileged to attend a three day seminar in New York titled: “The Bible and the Catholic Church: Challenging The Findings of the Jesus Seminar.” The seminar was sponsored by CRISIS magazine in conjunction with Monsignor Michael J. Wrenn.

The “Jesus Seminar” was founded in 1985 by Protestant scholar Robert Funk and it represents a well-funded, public assault on the scriptural foundations of many Catholic doctrines. It has now taken to the road in the U.S. and is attracting Christians from all denominations — it has even held seminars in Catholic precincts.

The “Jesus Seminar” is composed of scholars from colleges, universities and seminaries who have met annually for the past fifteen years to vote on which of the words and deeds of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels should be considered as accurate. They have concluded that over 82 percent of what Jesus said in the Gospels is not historically accurate; and that of the 176 deeds of Jesus recounted in the Gospels, only 10 are historical. It asserts that Jesus did not rise from the dead, that he did not teach his disciples to pray the “Our Father,” that his death does not have salvific significance for the human race.

The “Jesus Seminar” reaches its conclusions mainly through the analysis of biblical texts according to the principles of an exegetical method known as “historical criticism.” In particular, it bases many of its findings on the assumed truth of what is known as the “Two-Source Theory” which asserts that i) Mark’s Gospel was the first to be written, and ii) the Gospels of Matthew and Luke draw for their teaching about Jesus on the Gospel of Mark and upon a hypothetical document known as “Q” (from the German word “Quelle”). On the basis of this theory, the Jesus Seminar fosters the notion that the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John are largely mythical elaborations of the real Jesus as found in Mark and “Q.” However, the 1993 document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission titled The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, notes that the “Two-Source Theory” is today “under challenge” from scholars.

Moderated by the editor of CRISIS magazine, Dr. Deal W. Hudson, the New York Seminar on The Bible and the Church brought together many distinguished scholars including: Professor William Farmer, Rev. N.T. Wright, Professor Scott Hahn, Rev. Dr. Brian Harrison, Msgr. George A. Kelly, Hon. Kenneth D. Whithead, Professor David Laird Dungan and Rev. Professor Donald J. Keefe, S.J.

An internationally acclaimed biblical scholar and professor at the University of Dallas, Dr. Farmer, who converted to Catholicism in 1990, stated that the members of the Jesus Seminar “are involved in a comprehensive misunderstanding of the New Testament.” He said that Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar want “to mess about” with the canon of Sacred Scripture — “delete something here, add something there.” He stated that their first major failing as historians was their failure “to properly construe the importance of certain data preserved in the letters of Paul for understanding Jesus and his role in Christian origins.”

In particular, Dr. Farmer described, and expertly refuted, the erroneous assertions of the Jesus Seminar on the origins of the Eucharist. It suggests that St. Paul took over the tradition concerning the Last Supper from pagan Hellenistic circles somewhere in Asia Minor or Greece. This assertion, added Farmer, amounts to no less than “the difference between a Church with the Eucharist and a Church without the Eucharist.”

Taking as his point of departure certain New Testament texts regarding the Last Supper tradition in 1 Cor 11: 23-26 and the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Professor Farmer presented a profound exegesis of these texts to demonstrate that despite some differences in their presentation of the tradition, they nonetheless converge in their testimony to what happened on the night that Christ was betrayed. This convergence, said Professor Farmer, bears an historically reliable double attestation to the following facts regarding what happened at the Last Supper:

It was on the same occasion, the night he was betrayed, In the same setting that of a meal, Jesus took bread and giving thanks or blessing it, he broke it in the presence of his disciples and said: “This is My Body,” Later, after taking the cup, Jesus associated it with his blood and with the New Covenant, In both accounts it is made clear that what Jesus is doing is being done for others.

Dr. Farmer went on to demonstrate how in the convergence of these two accounts of the institution of the Eucharist, the Church has “two separate accounts of the same event” which rests upon “the same set of eyewitnesses, namely, the disciples of Jesus who were present to witness the awesome event.” Hence, added Dr. Farmer, “if there is a mystery in all of this, it is a mystery grounded in history . . . we are dealing with acts and words of Jesus historically attested.”

Professor Scott Hahn, again took up the question of the Eucharist, but did so from the perspective of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God. Dr. Hahn was a Presbyterian minister for ten years. In 1986, he converted to Catholicism and he is now a professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Professor Hahn stated that faith in Jesus Christ “demands that we accept his promises on his terms — he promised us a glorious kingdom within his own generation and we have to believe he made good on that promise.” Having said this Hahn then went on to quote Vatican II where it says: “To carry out the will of the Father, Christ inaugurated the kingdom of heaven on earth . . . The Church — that is, the Kingdom of Christ, already present in mystery, grows visibly through the power of God in the world” (Lumen Gentium, n. 3). Later, Hahn quoted from Christoph Schonborn’s book Death To Life where the scholarly Cardinal said: “The Pilgrim Church is nothing other than the Kingdom of Heaven that Christ established on earth.”

Hahn pointed out that a feature of the work of Loisy and other modernist biblical scholars is their opposition to the Magisterium’s teaching about the Catholic Church being the Kingdom of God. Regarding the problems that arise from dissent against this Church teaching, Hahn quoted Cardinal Henri de Lubac as having stated prior to Vatican II:
“You have come to Mount Zion, to the City of the Living God. The early Church Fathers believed these words, as Augustine said, ‘The present Church is the Kingdom of Christ’ (Sermon 125). In this synthesising vision of the mystery, the Church is identical with Christ her Bridegroom, who is himself the Kingdom and precisely this vision corresponds to the deepest logic of Christianity. If one was to abandon this vision of the Church as the Kingdom of Christ, countless abuses in thought and deed would be the result.”

Linking the Church’s teaching on the Kingdom with the Sacrifice of the Mass, Professor Hahn said:

The right place for the Kingdom is the Heavenly Jerusalem which descends to earth in every Mass. For our Eucharistic liturgy is a royal Sacrament in which we participate in our King’s priestly self-offering before the angels and saints and unto his Father and our Father in heaven. And so, the right kind of Kingdom we should be looking for is a Eucharistic Kingdom.

In his lecture entitled “Re-examining What We Mean By History,” Fr. Donald Keefe, S.J, who is professor of dogmatics at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, stated that the Jesus Seminar “is hardly alone in broadcasting a rationalistic disillusionment with institutional religion.” Fr. Keefe added that the Western world now lives on the accumulated interest of nearly 2000 years of faith in Christ and, that this in turn, rests on another 2000 years of Judaism. Fr. Keefe cited St. Augustine as “the greatest of the theologians of history,” and added that in his great book The City of God, he “has taught the Western World about history down to the time of the Enlightenment.”

In regard to the Enlightenment view of history, Fr. Keefe stated that from the time of the publication of Voltaire’s History of Manners, “history became a secular category.” In contrast to this secular view, Fr. Keefe posited “that history has always been a theological category” and that “the theology of history is identically the theology of the Eucharist.”

Taking the words of institution of the Eucharist, “This is My Body” and “This is My Blood,” as the “core of the Church’s worship in Truth,” Fr. Keefe stated that the truth of these words provide the hermeneutical test for any understanding of history that may be of use within Catholic theology, or indeed within Christian theology in general. In this context, Fr. Keefe added:

We place him [Christ] in the center of our free history and we understand this freedom in the context of his Lordship over it...Within the Catholic tradition, that Lordship is Eucharistic. When we say, “This is My Body” and “This is My Blood,” when we hear it said, when the priest utters it in the person of Christ, he is effecting by these words, by the institution of Christ at the Last Supper, his Covenantal presence in the world.

Rev. N.T Wright — highly acclaimed author, former lecturer in the New Testament at Oxford University as well as canon-theologian at Westminster Abbey, currently guest lecturer at the Harvard Divinity School —stated that it is necessary for us to study Jesus historically. He said the question about the historicity of the Gospel portrait of Jesus has been raised in public and it won’t go away. He said that the quest for the historical Jesus expresses itself in questions such as: “Who was Jesus? Was he really like the Church said he was?”

Rev. Wright said that if it were true, as some contemporary authors claim, that Jesus was merely a minor Galilean exorcist, failed revolutionary, or deluded apocalyptic fanatic, then our faith is in vain. He said that we have to answer all these questions in order to show that Christianity is not simply about private religious experiences, but rather about things that happened within history. In this regard, Rev. Wright noted that it is deeply significant that Pontius Pilate made it into the Christian Creed — indicating that “this stuff really happened.”

Rev. Wright pointed out that a failure to study Jesus historically can lead us into the heresy of Docetism, and that it runs the risk of inventing a Jesus to suit our own ideologies. He pointed out how such a thing happened in Germany in the 1920s and 30s where — a neglect of the historical foundations of the Christian faith — allowed theologians with Nazi sympathies to produce a non-Jewish Jesus who did not pose a threat to the legitimization of Nazi ideology.

In speaking of the way in which the ideas of Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) influenced the rise of modern biblical criticism, Dr. David Laird Dungan, a Protestant scholar who teaches at the University of Tennessee and who is the author of the recently published book A History of the Synoptic Problem (Doubleday, 1999), touched also on the question of how biblical studies has been subjected to manipulation by ideologues.

Dr. Dungan pointed out that Spinoza’s skeptical and rationalist questioning of the historicity of the Gospels had infected German biblical scholarship in the period 1860-1939. This, he said, contributed to “a violent attack upon Roman Catholicism in 1870 in the aftermath of Vatican I.” Liberal Lutheran scholars, added Dr. Dungan, claimed that “the idea of papal infallibility was absolutely irrational” and this opposition to the dogma gave rise to “a Government led witch-hunt on Roman Catholic faculties in German universities.” Dungan stated that German Catholic professors who defended the Vatican I teaching on papal authority “were fired, they were interrogated, priests were brought in for cross-examination, churches were closed, there was a centrally organized attack on the Roman Catholic Church in Germany.”

Dr. Dungan said that in this battle against the Catholic Church in Germany, biblical criticism was used to challenge the authenticity of Mt 16: 16-19 as a text traceable back to the historical Jesus and which is important in the Catholic Church’s apologetic against those who challenge its teaching on papal authority. Dr. Dungan stated that under Bismarck, those professors who endorsed the view that Mark and not Matthew was the first Gospel to be written were given preference by the German Ministry of Education in faculty appointments. Finally, added Dr. Dungan, the notion generated by liberal Lutheran scholars that anything in Matthew’s Gospel which did not find attestation in Mark was not worthy of credence, and the relegation of Matthew’s Gospel to the “basement of the Bible” together with all its elements of Jesus’ Jewishness, served the First and Second Reichs in their creation of an Aryan Christ.

In an inspiring lecture on Pope Paul VI and the Historicity of the Gospels, Rev. Dr. Brian Harrison, who teaches in the theology department of the University of Puerto Rico, pointed out that on several occasions during his pontificate, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the received Catholic teaching on the historical reliability of the Gospels, as did Vatican II in Dei Verbum.

Fr. Harrison pointed out how the calling into question of the historicity of the Gospels weakened the foundations of Catholic dogma. To this effect, Fr. Harrison quoted Cardinal Ratzinger who, in an article published in 1991 in a volume of Italian essays about biblical studies, said: “Dogma deprived of its scriptural foundations is no longer holding up. The Bible which has separated itself from dogma has become a document of the past which essentially belongs to the past.”

In regard to the dogma of Christ’s virginal conception, and while acknowledging that in Catholic faith Divine Revelation is mediated through both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, Fr. Harrison stated that “the Catholic tradition is not simply that Christ was virginally conceived,” but rather “that Scripture teaches that he was virginally conceived.” Fr. Harrison pointed out that all of the patristic and classical theologians relied on the relevant passages from Matthew and Luke in the their defense of this article of faith regarding the virginal conception of Jesus.

An example of how the biblical foundations of certain dogmas of Catholic faith have been called into question by some biblical scholars is Fr. Raymond Brown’s treatment of the virginal conception of Christ. Expressing doubt as to whether the Gospels of Matthew and Luke clearly affirm the historicity of the virginal conception, Brown says that “the scientifically controllable biblical evidence leaves the question of the historicity of the virginal conception unsolved.”1 In more common language, what Fr. Brown is here asserting is that, on the basis of the biblical data, we cannot say for sure whether or not Jesus was virginally conceived.

At this juncture, it is worth noting that Pope John Paul II gave a marvelous catechesis on the virginal conception during his Wednesday audience on July 10, 1996. The Pope said that “the virginal conception is a biological fact” and that “the Gospel accounts clearly teach that Jesus’ conception was the work of the Holy Spirit and not just a theological expression of his divine sonship.” Referring to the account of the Annunciation in St. Luke’s Gospel, the Holy Father said: “The structure of the Lucan text (cf. Lk 1: 26-38; 2:19, 51) resists any reductive interpretation. Its coherence does not validly support any mutilation of the terms or expressions which affirm the virginal conception brought about by the Holy Spirit.” In regard to the texts in Matthew, Pope John Paul II said: “The Evangelist Matthew, reporting the angel’s announcement to Joseph, affirms like Luke that the conception was ‘the work of the Holy Spirit’ (Mt 1:20) and excluded marital relations.” (L’Osservatore Romano, 7/17/96).

Also tackling the question of the link between the faith of the Church and biblical studies at the New York conference was Kenneth D. Whitehead, who is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education as well as an author of several books and translator of 21 books from French, German and Italian. He quoted Albert Schweitzer as saying that the motivation for much of the modern critical study of the Bible was to be found in “a struggle against the tyranny of dogma” (emphasis added).

Whitehead acknowledged that over the last two centuries critical study of the Bible has produced some positive results. In this regard, he referred to the 1993 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission — titled The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church — which stated that the historical critical method was an “indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts.” However, in conjunction with this, Whitehead recalled another passage from the same document which stated that “the historical-critical method cannot lay claim to enjoying a monopoly . . . it must be conscious of its limits, as well as to the dangers to which it is exposed. . . .”

Basing himself on the teaching of Vatican II in Dei Verbum, Whitehead stated that in order to serve the Church, biblical exegetes must forge their scholarly judgments in accordance with three criteria which are: i) the unity of the whole of Scripture, ii) the Tradition of the Church, and iii) the analogy of faith.

To interpret the Scriptures according to “the analogy of faith,” said Whitehead, means “that the exegete cannot interpret texts in a way that contradicts either established doctrines of the faith or interpretations of other passages of Scripture accepted by the Church.”

After paying tribute to the many Catholic scholars who are working within the Vatican II guidelines for the interpretation of the Bible, Whitehead pointed out that there were also many who were not. As an example of this kind of divergent scholarship, Whitehead cited a book on the historical Jesus written by Father John Meier of the Catholic University of America entitled A Marginal Jew.

In his introduction to A Marginal Jew, Meier stated that in writing it he intended to “prescind from what Christian faith or later Church teaching says about Jesus, without either affirming or denying such claims.” The contradictions into which such a methodology can lead the Catholic exegete is inadvertently made clear by Fr. Meier when he says that from a philological and historical point of view, “the most probable opinion is that the brothers and sisters of Jesus” mentioned in Matthew 12:46, Mark 3:3 and Lk 8:19 “were his siblings.” Since the Church in her teaching affirms the perpetual virginity of Mary, then the method of biblical interpretation being followed by Fr. Meier falls outside the methodological parameters for biblical interpretation laid down by Vatican II.

In an illuminating lecture entitled The Wayward Turn in Biblical Theory, Msgr. George A. Kelly, author of over 30 books including The New Biblical Theorists (1983) which is about to be republished by Ignatius Press, stated that “biblical theory is no substitute for Catholic teaching.”

Msgr. Kelly revealed that his involvement with biblical theory began in 1970 when Cardinal Cook mailed to every priest in the Archdiocese of New York a copy of Raymond Brown’s book Priest and Bishop. Msgr. Kelly said that he was not halfway through the book when he discovered that Brown “could not prove — that Christ instituted the ministerial priesthood or episcopacy as such, that Christ established the Eucharist as a sacrifice or that those who presided at the Eucharist were really priests, that a separate priesthood began with Christ or that presbyter bishops were in any way traceable to the apostles, or that Peter in his life-time would be looked upon as the Bishop of Rome or that the Bishops were the successors of the Apostles — even though Vatican II had restated that very claim.”

Msgr, Kelly said that Fr. Brown asserted “that all his statements had to be nuanced but they were often presented to future priests and seminarians as true and there was no one around then like Cardinal Ratzinger to tell us what he told the world later: that you can’t read scripture outside the Church.” Msgr. Kelly revealed further that the only Church authority in the U.S. who publicly challenged Fr. Brown over his book Priest and Bishop was Cardinal Shehan of Baltimore. Coupled with this, Msgr. Kelly told of how Fr. Dennis McCarthy, S.J. — who taught Scripture at the Biblicum in Rome — stated before a gathering of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars in the U.S. that Fr. Brown operated out of a “squirrel cage” where he ran around and around in circles and always ended up at one station, namely doubt.

Citing Brown’s treatment of the virginal conception of Jesus as an example of his deadly methodology, Msgr. Kelly said that he starts by acknowledging the virginal conception as an infallibly defined doctrine, then points to the fact that it is under attack from some Protestants and some Catholics, in light of which he perceives a need to re-examine the received teaching. Concluding that the “scientifically controlled evidence” in the Bible leaves Mary’s virginity an unsolved problem, Brown, said Msgr. Kelly, concludes his “re-examination” of the question by raising a doubt as to whether or not the doctrine regarding Mary’s virginal conception has in fact been infallibly taught by the Church.

Continuing with this theme of Catholic scholars who have forsaken the Church’s norms for the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, Msgr. Michael Wrenn remarked at the New York seminar how grieved he was when he read recently a book written by Father Marie Emile Boismard, of the famous Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, titled At The Dawn of Christianity, Before the Birth of Dogmas. In his remarks on this book, Msgr. Wrenn said:

Employing a historical-critical approach with kudos to the late Fr. Raymond Brown and accepting the priority of the Gospel of Mark and the existence of “Q,” Moismard attempts to eviscerate accepted scriptural justifications for the Virgin Birth, the Divinity of Christ, the Blessed Trinity, and the Eucharist. He even puts a novel twist on the doctrine of atonement and justification. Moreover, he believes that eternal damnation really means annihilation for the unrepentant and that the concept of the Logos is the result of the influence of Philo of Alexandria.

To move now towards a conclusion to this article. The Jesus Seminar, and its fellow travelers amongst Catholic scholars, has the potential to wreak havoc in Catholic circles where “new winds of doctrine” are forever the flavor of the month. Soon, the Jesus Seminar will be publishing the “final and approved” version of “Q.” Scholars belonging to the Jesus Seminar want copies of “Q” to be placed in all libraries alongside the Bible. Indeed, they are pushing for versions of the Bible to include “Q.”
The place given in “Q” in Biblical studies as a source of Jesus’ sayings has led to the acceptance by a growing number of scholars of the value to Christian faith of the gnostic Gospel of Thomas which was discovered in 1945 and which dates from sometime in the late-second to fourth century.

The heterodox ideas of rationalistic minded biblical scholars have now moved from the ivory towers of academia into the classrooms of Catholic junior high schools in Australia. For example, a new set of religious education texts entitled Out of the Desert which are intended for use in Years 7-9 (12-15 year olds) in Catholic high schools has recently appeared in Australia. While claiming to be based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the “spirit of Vatican II,” these Out Of The Desert texts actually contradict the dogmatic teaching of the Church in areas such as: death as a consequence of sin, the foundation of the Church by the will of Christ, the hierarchical structure of the Church, and the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture.

Book Three of Out of the Desert series contains the following student activity:

    1.    Find out the meaning of “canon” when used in speaking about the Scriptures.

    2.     Research the structure, authorship, contents and literary style of the Gospel of Thomas. Why was it not included in the canon of the Christian Scriptures?

    3.    Using a Sunday missal or lectionary, find out which gospels form the basis of the Sunday readings in the liturgical years A, B and C?2

The only source reference given to the students in the Out of the Desert text to facilitate their research on the Gospel of Thomas is the following Internet site: When we go to this website on the Internet, we find that its main focus is a presentation of the “Gospel of Thomas” in its two forms: one a translation from the (full) Coptic text, the other a translation of the (partial) Greek text. Verse-by-verse comparisons are offered.

The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 verses (in the Coptic version) of which most begin: “Jesus said . . . .” Prior to verse 1, it states: “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.” They are alleged sayings of Jesus, and are presented as the transmission of secret knowledge which requires correct interpretation, presumably by initiates. For example, verse 1 states: “And he said, ‘Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.’”

The invitation in Out of the Desert to 14-15 year-old students to enrich their Catholic education by visiting the website, if accepted by the diligent, would yield further invitations via the website’s own links. The unsuspecting children may click onto the Gnosis Archive, where they are asked to “Take a moment to reflect on a brief meditation and readings from the Gnostic scriptures, selected from this week’s Gnostic liturgy.”

Next, these students browsing this Gnostic website could, through its links, visit pages dedicated to luminaries such as Heidegger, existentialist devotee of Nazism; the nihilist philosopher Nietzsche so admired by Hitler, or rampant homosexual author Proust. At Kafka’s page, they are invited to experience a spiritual renewal through his exuberantly hope-filled influence. Students with proficiency in the French language can visit a page dedicated to the noted sodomite, pervert and pornographer, the Marquis de Sade. As for those interested in comparative religion, Rosicrucian Fellowship and Masonic links are provided, as are Kabala links, “Festival of Plagiarism” and the site “Hyper Weirdness by WWW.”

The invitation into this website associated with their assignment to explore the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, runs the risk of producing for some of these 14-15 year old students an excursion into the Gnostic world of secret “knowledge,” witchcraft, fringe religion, bizarre philosophies and perversions. Their parents, I am sure, would not approve of such exposure, even if some Catholic educators recommend it.

Sadly to say, of the three authors who wrote Book Three of Out Of The Desert in which this assignment on the Gospel of Thomas is given, one is the Head of the Religious Education Department at one of the Catholic Education Offices in Sydney, while another is a consultant on Religious Education at the same office. The stakes are indeed high! The hour is late!

Eamonn Keane is a professor of religious education at a Catholic high school in Sydney, Australia.


1    R.E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1977), p. 527 (emphasis in original).
2    Janet Morrissey, Peter Mudge, Greg Wilson, Out of the Desert, Book Three (Melbourne: Longman, 1998), p. 64.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved