April 8, 2002
volume 13, no. 66

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to the
Pontifical Biblical Commission's
"The Hebrew People in its Holy Scriptures and the Christian Bible"

by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

    Following is an English Translation* of the Preface by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the Pontifical Biblical Commission's document released in November but authored last May 24, 2001, entitled"The Hebrew People in its Holy Scriptures and the Christian Bible." We present the Preface without comment this week. Next Monday we will begin a comprehensive response to that and the entire document by Atila Sinke Guimarães, edited and translated by Dr. Marian Horvat, in seven installments under the title: "The Biblical Commission on the Jews: Changes in Doctrine and New Anathemas." It will be carried in a new series we are calling Defending Catholic Truth. Indeed, after reading the Cardinal's preface and what follows, you will see the need to defend Catholic Truth!

    In the theology of the Fathers of the Church the question of the internal unity of the one Bible of the Church, which is made up of the Old and New Testaments, was a central theme. From the spiritual journey of one of the greatest masters of Christianity, St Augustine of Hippo, we can almost touch with our hands how this was not just a theoretical problem. When Augustine was 19 years old in 373 he had had a first deep experience of conversion. The reading of a book by Cicero, the long-lost work Hortensius, had worked in him a deep transformation, which he himself would retrospectively describe. “I directed my prayers toward you, O Lord, I started to get up in order to come back to you. How much, O my God, did I burn from the desire to leave earthly things and to start flying towards you” [Conf III 4,7-8]. For the young African, who as a child had received the salt that made him into a catechumen, it was clear the turn toward God had to be a turn towards Christ. And it was also clear that without Christ he could not really find God. So he turned from Cicero to the Bible and experienced a terrible disappointment in the difficult juridical deliberations of the Old Testament. In its intricate and oftentimes even cruel stories he could not recognize the wisdom to which he wanted to open himself. In his search he thus met people who preached a new spiritual Christianity, a Christianity where the Old Testament was despised as non-spiritual and repugnant, a Christianity whose Christ did not need the testimony of the Hebrew prophets. These people promised a Christianity of pure and simple reason, a Christianity where Christ was the great illuminator who led people to true self-awareness. These people were the Manicheans.

    The great of promise of the Manicheans proved to be illusory, but his problem was not solved. Augustine could convert to the Christianity of the Catholic Church only when through St Ambrose he got to know an interpretation of the Old Testament that made the Bible of Israel transparent in the direction of Christ and thus made the light of the wisdom he was searching for visible in it. Thus, not only the external scandal of the unsatisfactory literary form of the vetus latina Bible was overcome but, and even more so, the internal scandal of a book was overcome, a book which manifested itself now not just as a document of the history of the faith of a particular people with all its disorders and errors, but rather as the voice of a wisdom coming from God, a wisdom which concerned everyone. Such as reading of the Bible of Israel which acknowledged in its historical ways the transparency of Christ and thus the transparency of the Logos, of the very same eternal wisdom was not fundamental just for the decision of faith of Augustine, it was and remains the foundation of the decision of faith in the Church as a whole.

    But is it true? Is it justifiable and realizable? From the point of view of historical-critical exegesis, at least at first glance, everything seems to argue against this. So goes the eminent liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack in 1920. “To reject the Old Testament in the second century (and he is alluding to Marcion) was a mistake which the Great Church justly repudiated. To keep the Old Testament in the 16th century was a destiny from which the Reformation could not yet extricate themselves. To keep it still in the ambit of Protestantism in the 19th century as a canonical document having the same value as the New Testament is the consequence of a religious and ecclesial paralysis.”

    Is Harnack right? At first glance many elements seem to support his view. If the exegesis of Ambrose opened the way to the Church for Augustine and within his fundamental orientation - even if in the details it was, of course, very favorable – it became the foundation of the faith in the Word of God included in the Bible, which is divided into two parts but is still one. Yet we can immediately thus argue Ambrose that had learned this exegesis in the school of Origin who was the first one who had practiced it in a coherent manner. But many believe that Origen has only taken into the Bible allegorical methods of interpretation which had been used in the Greek world for the religious writings of antiquity, especially Homer, and therefore he has essentially achieved not only a Hellenization which was deeply foreign to the biblical world but he has also used the method which in itself was not credible because it aimed in the end to preserve as sacred something which in fact represented the testimony of a culture which was no longer actualizable. But things are not so easy. Origen more than on the exegesis of Homer developed by the Greeks could base himself on the exegesis of the Old Testament which had been developed in the Judaic ambit, especially in Alexandria with Philo as the prime exemplar, and which in a very idiosyncratic manner tried to disclose the Bible of Israel to the Greeks who beyond the gods were searching for the one God whom they could find in the Bible. He also had learned his method from the rabbis. And finally he has also elaborated specifically Christian principles such as the interior unity of the Bible as criterion of interpretation and Christ as point of reference of all the ways of the Old Testament.

    But leaving aside any judgment on the details of the exegesis of Ambrose and Origen, its ultimate foundation was not Greek allegorical exegesis nor Philo nor the rabbinical methods. Its very foundation beyond the details of the interpretation was the New Testament itself. Jesus of Nazareth had made the claim to be the true heir of the Old Testament, of “scripture,” the claim that he could give the scripture its definitive interpretation, an interpretation which certainly was not in the manner of the scribes but on the basis of the authority of the author himself. “He taught as one who had [divine] authority not as the scribes” (Mk 1:22). The story of the disciples of Emmaus once more makes this claim. “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Lk 24:27). So the authors of the New Testament tried to establish this claim in detail, especially Matthew but this is no less true for Paul, who used for this purpose the rabbinical methods of interpretation and tried to show that this form of interpretation developed by the scribes leads to Christ as the key of the “scriptures.” For the authors and the founders of the New Testament the Old Testament is on the other hand very simply THE scripture; only the nascent Church could slowly form a New Testament canon which is sacred scripture in the same way [as the Old Testament] but which constitutes sacred scripture inasmuch as it presupposes as sacred scripture the Bible of Israel, (which is the Bible of the apostles and of their disciples and which only now receives the name of Old Testament), and which gives to it [the Bible of Israel] its interpretative key.

    In this sense the Fathers of the Church with their christological interpretation of the Old Testament had not created anything new but had only developed and systematized what they could already find in the New Testament itself. This synthesis which is fundamental for the Christian faith would however become problematic when a historical consciousness developed interpretative criteria on the basis of which the exegesis of the Fathers would appear as lacking any historical foundation and therefore as objectively unsustainable. Luther in the context of humanism and its new historical consciousness, especially however in the context of his own doctrine of justification, developed a new formulation of the relationship between the two parts of the Christian Bible which is no longer based on the internal harmony of Old and New Testaments but on its antithesis which is substantially dialectical from the historically-salvific and existential [point of view] of Law and Gospel. Bultmann has expressed in a modern way this essential approach with the formula according to which the Old Testament was accomplished in Christ in its [the Old Testament ‘s] own failure. More radical even is the proposal mentioned earlier by Harnack which, as far as I can see, has in practice not been taken up by anybody but which was perfectly logical on the basis of an exegesis for which the texts of the past can have in every instance only that particular meaning which their authors in their historical period wanted to give to them. To the modern historical consciousness, however, it is absolutely impossible to believe that the authors writing centuries before Christ who expressed themselves in the books of the Old Testament intended to allude in anticipatory fashion to Christ and the faith of the New Testament. In this sense, with the victory of historical-critical exegesis the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament started by the New Testament itself appeared to be finished. As we have seen this is not just a particular historical question but the very foundations of Christianity are here put in question. Thus it becomes clear why no one has wanted to follow Harnack’s proposal to realize finally that abandonment of the Old Testament which had already been undertaken –but only too early – by Marcion. What would then remain, our New Testament, would then make no sense in itself. The document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission which we present here says about this point, “Without the Old Testament the New Testament would be an undecipherable book, a plant deprived of its own roots, and destined to wither” (n. 84).

    At this point we can appreciate the difficulty of the task faced by the Pontifical Biblical Commission when it decided to address the issue of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. If there is a way out from the blind alley described by Harnack compared to the understanding of the liberal scholars we must develop and deepen the concept of an interpretation of the historical texts that is sustainable today, of an interpretation however of the text of the Bible considered as the Word of God. In this direction over the last decades some quite important has happened. The Pontifical Biblical Commission has presented the essence of its studies in its document published in 1993, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. The deeper understanding of the multidimensionality of human discourse which is not tied to a particular historical point but which projects itself toward the future was a help to understand better how the Word of God can use the human word in order to give meaning to a story which progresses, which points beyond the actual moment but nonetheless just because of this creates an overarching unity. The Pontifical Biblical Commission, taking up this previous document and basing itself on actual methodological reflections, has deepened the discrete great sets of themes of both Testaments in their relationship and it has been able to say in conclusion that the Christian hermeneutics of the Pontifical Biblical Commission which without doubt is profoundly different from that of Judaism, “corresponds however to a potentiality of meaning effectively present in the texts” (n 64). This is a result that, I believe, is of great importance for the continuation of the dialogue but especially also for the foundations of Christian faith.

    The Pontifical Biblical Commission however could not in its work ignore the context of our present time where the tragedy of the Shoah has put the entire question in another light. Two principal problems arose. Can the Christians, after all that has happened still claim as before to be the legitimate heirs of the Bible of Israel? Can they continue with a Christian interpretation of this Bible or should they not rather with respect and humility give up this claim that in the light of all that has happened can only appear as presumptuous? And next we can take up the second question: Has not the presentation of the Jews and Judaism in the New Testament itself contributed to create a hostility toward these people which has favored the ideology of those who wanted to suppress them? The Commission has addressed both questions. It is clear that an abandonment of the Old Testament on the part of Christians would not only, as we showed earlier, result in the dissolution of Christianity itself, but could not even be of any use for a positive relationship between Christians and Jews because their common foundation would be eliminated. To this point the document says two things: First of all it says that the Jewish reading of the Bible “is a possible reading which is in continuity with the Jewish sacred scriptures at the time of the Second Temple and it is analogous to the Christian reading which was developed in parallel with this” (n22). To this the Commission adds that Christians can learn a lot from Jewish exegesis as it has been practiced for two thousand years; and for their part Christians hope that Jews can profit from the advances of Christian exegesis (ibid.). I think that these analyses will be useful for the progress of the Jewish-Christian dialogue but also for the interior formation of Christian consciousness.

    The question of the presentation of Jews in the New Testament is taken up by the last part of the document where the “anti-Jewish” texts are accurately examined. Here I would just like to stress an intuition that appears to me as particularly important. The document shows that the reproaches that are addressed to the Jews in the New Testament are not more frequent or harsher than the accusations against Israel in the Law and in the Prophets and therefore within the Old Testament itself (n 87). They [the reproaches] belong to the prophetic language of the Old Testament. They must therefore be interpreted [in the same way as] the words of the prophets. They warn against deviations that are present but these accusations are intrinsically always temporary and they always presuppose new possibilities of salvation.

    I would like to express to the members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission my gratitude and appreciation for their work. From their discussions that have been conducted with patience for many years has emerged this document that in my opinion can offer an important help for a central question of Christian faith and for the search, which is so important, for a renewed understanding between Christians and Jews.

    Feast of the Ascension, 2001
    Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

    *Taken from and translated by Thomas Cattoi.

NEXT MONDAY: Part One of The Biblical Commission on the Jews: Changes in Doctrine and New Anathemas by Atila Sinke Guimarães This is the first part of his response to the Pontifical Biblical Commission's document. You don't want to miss a single installment. It will be carried under "Defending Catholic Truth and Tradition" both on Mondays and Thursdays, replacing for the duration of his critique his regular column "On the BattleLine" in the Monday slot, and Dr. Marian Therese Horvat's column "Echoes of True Catholicism" in the Thursday slot. Atila read the original Italian work by the PBC titled "Il populo ebraico e le sue Sacre Scritture nella Bibbia cristiana," which we sent to him. He wrote his review and translated the excerpts he used from Italian to Portuguese. Dr. Marian has worked closely with him in translating and editing his critique from Portuguese into English. Atila and Marian have graciously accepted our request to critique the book while all in the United States still wait for the English translation. The response is too important to delay for that, because what is contained in the document "The Hebrew People in Holy Scripture and the Christian Bible" will truly alarm you.

For past columns by Atila in Archives, see

Monday, April 8, 2002
volume 13, no. 66
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