Reality in an Historical-Critical Perspective


September 22, 2018

This week-end a brief reflection, as a follow-up to my comment last week that we need “a broad-based implementation of an historical-critical understanding of Sacred Scripture, church teaching, and church history.” A number of people have asked me for more explanation…..

The historical-critical method, also known as historical criticism or higher criticism, began as a way to investigate the origins of ancient biblical texts in order to understand the world and meaning behind those texts. It gained broad recognition in the 19th and 20th centuries. It begins with an examination of the cultural and religious background of the authors of biblical texts and the meaning of their words written back then. Next the focus shifts to: (1) how one should understand the narrated past events today and (2) the best way to translate those scriptures into contemporary language.

Not everyone is happy with an historical-critical approach. Opponents, I would say often unfairly, accuse historical-critical scholarship of reducing Sacred Scripture to just a collection of old myths and pious legends. I don’t agree with that but In my writing and speaking I try to avoid the word “myth” because it is often misunderstood and can create more confusion than illumination.

Certainly, the historical Jesus did exist. The Gospels honestly attest to what he said and did. A the end of his life, as a man in his early thirties, he was tortured and crucified by Roman soldiers in Jerusalem. He was judged to be a threat to Roman control of the area and some Jewish religious authorities found him to be a dangerous trouble-maker. He challenged the authenticity of their faith. But then, God raised Jesus from the dead; and today we strive to live with and in his abiding Spirit. He is our way, truth, and life.

As we read the Scriptures, we do indeed find various kinds of “literary forms”: historic accounts, symbol, parables, and creative imagination. When we read the Jesus infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, for example, we find not much historic detail but much creative imagination, used to convey the great meaning and significance of Jesus’ birth. God with us. Rich symbols contribute to the narration: a guiding star, angels singing in the sky, surprised shepherds in the fields, wise men with rich gifts, a census that is not historic, and a long journey over rough terrain to King David’s city with a very pregnant wife about-to-give-birth.

When one takes a serious historical-critical look at Sacred Scripture, our understandings develop and change. Today, for example, we no longer say, as was taught when I was a young man, that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Contemporary scholarship stresses that those scriptures evolved from various oral and later written traditions over a period of centuries, in a process that was not concluded until long after Moses (whether a legendary or an historic person) would have been dead and gone. Nor do we understand Adam and Eve as an historic couple who launched humanity on our planet. (There are still occasional interpretive exceptions. Yesterday I read a paper written by a young, British, Catholic ordained minister. Therein he explained that Adam was created a MAN directly by God; but that, since Eve came from Adam’s rib, she and all women do not come directly from God but are basically DEFECTIVE males! I am glad he is not one of my students….)

I am an historical theologian and suggest, as we examine our Christian tradition and contemporary belief, that we need to apply an historical-critical analysis to church teaching and church history. Today I can only indicate some selective examples of what I mean.

Some time ago I was chatting with a well-known U.S. East Coast cardinal and suggested, with a chuckle, that perhaps the Nicene Creed should be changed to “I believe in God the Almighty Mother…” he was not amused and sternly reprimanded me and reminded me that, “as the church teaches, God is a MAN!”

God of course relates to us very personally, but God is not a person. We can use many analogies to describe our experience of God: Father, Mother, Lover, etc. Right now, in my life, I understand God as my close and supportive traveling companion. God keeps me going.

The early translators of the Bible and early and medieval theologians were all men. An historical-critical analysis today reveals their strongly male and occasionally misogynist bias. Today we would say, they looked at reality through male-tinted glasses. It is important to understand this when church authority — not the teaching and witness of Jesus — limits the roles of women in the church. Some “Fathers of the Church” were extreme, to say the least. Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240 CE) thought a woman was not only “the gateway of the devil” but also “a temple built over a sewer.” And he is often called “the father of Latin Christianity.”

Gathered around Jesus at the Last Supper were his disciples. We know that he had male and female disciples. Contemporary scholars suspect the Last Supper had men, women, and children present: very different from the Leonardo da Vinci image that has come down to us.

In Paul’s letters as well as in Acts of Apostles, we find the names of several women who were Jesus’ disciples and apostles and ministers in the early church. This is historic fact. Some biblical translators over the years have tried to masculinize there names. Today we know better. They were women. I still remember an early Christian mural in Rome, clearly showing a woman presiding at Eucharist. A few years ago, before people could visit and see the actual mural, a reproduction of that mural was made and displayed in a public viewing area. What a surprise. In the public-display reproduction the breasts were removed and the person presiding at Eucharist became a flat-chested man with a beard. This was done of course so that “the faithful would not be confused.”

For centuries, Western Christianity depicted Mary Magdalene as a one-time licentious prostitute. This misogynist calumny began in the sixth century, when Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604 CE) asserted that Mary Magdalene was in fact the anonymous sinful woman mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. Fortunately, contemporary scholarship today presents a very different understanding of Mary Magdalene and regards her as one of Jesus’ most prominent disciples. She stood by him to the end, while his most devoted male disciples did not. Don’t forget: she was the first disciple to testify to Jesus’s resurrection. A woman!

Today we need to clean-up our liturgical language, our biblical translations, and our ecclesiastical publications: removing sexist language and replacing it with inclusive nouns and pronouns. We are brothers AND sisters in the community of faith. It is “humanity” not “mankind.” Jesus did not come to bring salvation only “for us men.”

With an historical-critical awareness, we also need to challenge falsehood. Today in my Catholic tradition there are still very high-placed churchMEN who insist that women, because they are women, cannot be ordained. Pope John Paul II was very firm about this. Pope Francis is still firm about this. History demonstrates, however, that they are wrong, because their knowledge of historic realities has been so one-sided and incomplete. Indeed a major shortcoming in the Catholic tradition has been the hierarchy’s inability to accept women as fully capable human beings. The exclusion of women from all forms of leadership and service is no longer acceptable.

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Take care. May the Holy Spirit guide us with her wisdom, strength, and support.

Jack

5 thoughts on “Reality in an Historical-Critical Perspective

  1. Pope Francis also stated that women can never be ordained. Other than this omission, an excellent essay on why “the exclusion of women from all forms of leadership and service is no longer acceptable.” Kudos.

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