Paul VI on the Historic Accuracy of the Gospels

I found this article so interesting I thought I’d excerpt an entire section of Rev. Brian Harrison’s “Pope Paul VI and the Truth of Sacred Scripture.”  Rev. Harrison emphasizes what any good scholar, who is not slavishly obedient to the historical critical method, will tell you about the four Gospels.  While the Gospels are not history in the sense that it is a chronological account of political events, they are a unique genre of non-fiction literature.

The Gospels are a biography that does not report events of enormous socio-political importance.   They tell the story of a person who preached, performed miracles, and proclaimed the Kingdom of God.  The Gospels also place the greatest emphasis on preserving the accuracy of what Jesus said, with far less emphasis placed on re-tracing his itinerary chronologically.

As any work of non-fiction ought to have, there are multiple sources.   There are four Gospels, there is also the testimony of the Acts of the Apostles, in addition to the works of Paul.  We also have the testimony of second-hand witnesses, such as Ignatius and Polycarp, who knew the Apostles personally.

This online paper is a summary of Rev. Harrison’s doctoral thesis.  The section quoted herein comes from Part III:  The Composition and Historicity of the Gospels.

I believe that this third and longest section brings to light the most important findings of my thesis, if we see them in the context of the recent expressions of concern by leading Catholic churchmen about the “dissolution of Christology” in modern exegesis which I noted at the beginning of this presentation. Chapter 7 introduces this section by considering the historical background to Pope Paul’s more specific commentaries on Gospel texts, noting how serious tensions and disagreements over the nature of the Gospels among biblical scholars and high Church authorities alike marked the period from the death of Pius XII to the opening debates of Vatican II. Paul VI’s response to this critical situation during Vatican II involved several elements: first, a great reliance on the advice and learning of Cardinal Augustin Bea, former Rector of the Biblicum; next, the approval and promulgation of a Biblical Commission Instruction which clearly reasserted the historical reliability of the Gospels while giving due weight to valid insights of modern scholarship regarding their composition and how they differ from modern academic historical writing; and finally, the Pope’s own intervention in the redaction of Dei Verbum 19, so as to require an explicit affirmation in the text that the truth of the Gospels is specifically historical in character.

In the last three chapters (8 to 10) I have examined in detail a large number of Paul VI’s commentaries on selected Gospel passages which were chosen mainly on the basis of their problematical character: they are among those passages whose character as authentically historical records has most frequently been called in question by modern biblical criticism. These commentaries have been presented as concrete and detailed evidence of how the Pope of Vatican II understood and applied to specific texts the general teaching about the historicity of the Gospels which he himself had approved and authorized in the P.B.C. Instruction Sancta Mater Ecclesia and in article 19 of Dei Verbum. Chapter 8 considers Paul VI’s comments on the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke; Chapter 9 deals with the Resurrection narratives; and in Chapter 10 I have looked at the Pope’s teaching on several quite heterogeneous Gospel texts (or groups of texts): first, the dialogue between Christ and Simon Peter in Matthew 16: 16-19; next, the accounts of Jesus’ miracles and exorcisms in all four Gospels; and finally, the lengthy ‘farewell discourses’ ascribed to our Lord at the Last Supper in Chapters 13-17 of St. John’s Gospel.

What I have found, after endeavouring to read everything Paul VI said and wrote about the Gospels, can be summarized as follows: in all the many hundreds of comments made by this Pope on specific Gospel texts, I did not find a single instance in which he called in question the historical reality of the specific evangelical event, saying, or discourse which was under discussion. On the contrary, he repeatedly and energetically affirmed that reality. This is true not only of Pope Paul’s comments about the central teachings, events and broad outlines of the evangelical narratives; it also applies to his frequent observations on points of secondary importance which modern criticism often sees as theologically-motivated, but nonetheless fictional or legendary, elaborations of some supposedly more primitive and prosaic stratum within the ancient tradition: for instance, the angelic appearances at Nazareth and Bethlehem; the star which guided the Magi; the disciples’ sense-perceptible experiences of the Risen Lord (touching him, eating with him, etc.); miracles such as changing water into wine and walking on the sea; and the authenticity of the ‘Magnificat’ as being in substance the Blessed Virgin’s inspired burst of praise.

Certainly, Pope Paul showed his awareness, where this was appropriate to his didactic or homiletic purpose, of the process of selection, transmission, and redaction of the Gospel material by the respective evangelists, and of the way in which this may have influenced the form in which that material is finally presented to us in the four canonical books. He also gave explicit and public approval to Cardinal Bea’s recognition that the historical interest of the evangelists “is not a historical interest in the sense of Greco-Roman historiography, that is, of a reasoned-out and chronologically arranged history which would be an end in itself.” 22 But this qualification only serves to highlight the importance of the next sentence which he quoted from Bea’s article on the same occasion: “Rather, it is an interest in past events as such, one which intends to report and transmit faithfully past events and sayings.” 23 The Pope’s abundant commentaries throughout the course of a fifteen-year pontificate bear eloquent witness to the seriousness with which he took both aspects of a true and contemporary reading of the Gospels: continuity with the Church’s great tradition regarding their historical reliability, and recognition of the nuances which distinguish them from modern historiography.

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