Sunday, August 07, 2005

Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch

"1. The Pontifical Biblical Commission - Am I to reject Wellhousen source criticism since the PBC says that Moses wrote the whole Torah? Is there any way I can look at it more ambiguously? Benedict XVI wrote, in his book on Genesis, that the first creation story was probably written during the Babylonian Exile. Was Cardinal Ratzinger spreading heresy?"

I'm not familiar with what Wellhousen says specifically, but Catholics are not bound to reject the JEDP redactor hypothesis as though it were a condemned opinion. (For an quick blurb on JEDP redactor hypothesis, see 4th question here: Quick Questions (This Rock: March 1994) . Neither ought the JEDP hypothesis to be understood as binding Catholic doctrine. It's merely a speculative hypothesis, which as of yet has no binding authority upon Catholic beliefs. I tend to agree more with the GELND theory, which claims that the Pentateuch is a compilation of five sources: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. ;)

Cardinal Ratzinger wrote,
"There were times when Israel was so preoccupied with the sufferings or the hopes of its own history, so fastened upon the here and now, that there was hardly any use in its looking back at creation; indeed, it hardly could. The moment when creation became a dominant theme occurred during the Babylonian Exile. It was then that the account that we have just heard -- based, to be sure, on very ancient traditions -- assumed its present form." (In the Beginning -A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger)

Has Cardinal Ratzinger contradicted the authentic teaching of the Church? I don't think so. Cardinal Ratzinger isn't even denying the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. He is stating a hypothesis of later redaction from very ancient traditions which may have given us the present form of the Genesis account.

What the 1906 Pontifical Bible Commission (PBC) railed against were those that would state as fact that Moses was not the author based upon their so-called certain "scientific evidence" regarding bible authorship. There's a difference in presenting a theological speculation or hypothesis in contrast to presenting an opinion as though it were fact which we are to trust as more authoritative than magisterial teaching. For more on the proper role of the theologian, including the problem of "dissent" versus "personal difficulty" regarding Catholic teaching, I recommend the following Instruction on the Vocation of the Theologian, promulgated by Pope John Paul II:

Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Compare Cardinal Ratzinger's biblical hypothesis (a hypothesis to which Catholics are free to assent or dissent) to the PBC responses in question:
First Question: Whether the arguments amassed by critics [as of 1906] to impugn the Mosaic authenticity of the sacred books designated by the name Pentateuch are of sufficient weight, notwithstanding the collective testimony of witnesses to the contrary found in both Testaments, the persistent agreement of the Jewish people, the constant tradition of the Church, and the internal evidence derived from the text itself, to justify the statement that these books do not have Moses as their author but were compiled from sources for the most part posterior to the time of Moses.

Response: Negative.

(Pontifical Bible Commission, Responsum de Mosaica authentia Pentateuchi, June 27, 1906; ASS 39 (1906) 377-78; translated by Dean P. Bechard, The Scripture Documents - An Anthology of Official Catholic Teachings, 188)

The Church has responded that the 1906 arguments against Mosaic authorship are not of sufficient weight to decidedly discount Mosaic authorship, given the testimony FOR Mosaic authorship by Scripture and Catholic tradition. This response refutes the school of thought that would, with a pretense of scientific certainty, totally discount the traditional Catholic view of Mosaic authorship. Does this mean that after Moses died, the Church refutes the possibility of redaction of the biblical texts? No. That's NOT what the PBC asserted. Observe,

Second Question: [First part:] Whether the Mosaic authenticity of the Pentateuch necessarily postulates such a redaction of the whole work that requires us absolutely to maintain that Moses wrote with his own hand or dictated to amanuenses all and everything contained in it; [Second part:] or whether it is possible to admit the hypothesis of those who think that he entrusted the composition of the work itself, which he himself conceived under the influence of divine inspiration, to some other person or persons, but in such a way that they faithfully rendered his own thought, wrote nothing contrary to his will, and omitted nothing; and that the work thus produced, being approved by Moses as the principal and inspired author, was made public under his name.

Response: Negative to the first part; affirmative to the second part.

Third Question: Whether it may be granted without prejudice to the Mosaic authenticity of the Pentateuch that Moses in the production of his work made use of sources, whether written documents or oral traditions, and from these, in accordance with his special purposes and under the influence of divine inspiration, he selected some things, either verbatim or in substance, summarized or amplified, and inserted them into his work.

Response: Affirmative.

Fourth Question: Whether, granted the substantial Mosaic authenticity of the Pentateuch, it may be admitted that in the long course of the centuries certain alterations have been introduced into the text, such as additions after the death of Moses either appended by an inspired author or inserted into the text as glosses or explanations; certain words or forms translated from the ancient into more current languages; or finally, faulty readings that can be attributed to the error of copyists, concerning which it is permissible to investigate and judge according to the norms of criticism.

Response: Affirmative, subject to the judgment of the Church. (ibid, 189)

The PBC responses above are not mere theories, but are authoritative decision published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (Acts of the Apostolic See), which means it is an authentic magisterial decision that until abrogated by the Roman See, requires religious submission by Catholics. What it states is not immutable, but it certainly is nothing that can be replaced by the counter-magisterial views of any theologian.

In short, as St. Thomas Aquinas asserted: "We must abide rather by the pope's judgment than by the opinion of any of the theologians, however well versed he may be in divine Scripture" (St. Thomas Aquinas, Questiones Quodlibetales, IX:8).

I also try to keep in mind the articulate perspective of C.S. Lewis with regard to the trustworthiness of biblical criticism (or lack thereof):

C.S. Lewis on Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism

God bless,



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