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Catholic University Biblical Scholar Traces Bible's 'Return' to Catholic Life

14 November 1995


f.gif (1005 bytes)or today's Catholics, studying the Bible is a central part of faith. But this development is relatively recent, said the Rev. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., professor emeritus of biblical studies at The Catholic University of America. He notes how we have witnessed, in recent decades especially, a remarkable return to the Bible and its place in Catholic life.

Fitzmyer, noted for work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, has been the American member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission since 1984. In a major speech Thursday at St. Patrick's College in Maynooth, Ireland, he showed how the commission's work has helped advance biblical studies.

The 18th-century Enlightenment, with its distrust of authority and tradition in intellectual matters, led to a rationalist view of the Bible. Deciphering of the Rosetta Stone and Bisuitun Stone in the 19th century provided valuable information for interpreters of the Bible, but also helped encourage the rationalists. This development led Pope Leo XIII in 1893 to warn Catholics about the dangers of a rationalist approach to Scripture and to establish the Pontifical Biblical Commission to promote biblical studies.

But the commission, according to Fitzmyer, played a watchdog role in the first part of this century that rendered Catholic scholars reluctant to interpret the Bible in the light of history. Their work was mostly limited to textual criticism. Pope Pius XII's 1943 encyclical on biblical studies, Divino Afflante Spiritu ("At the Inspiration of the Holy Spirit"), changed that. Because of the war, at least a decade passed before the document had an impact in the United States. The encyclical encouraged Bible study by all Catholics, eventually spurring the emergence of the Catholic Biblical Movement in 1955.

According to Fitzmyer, Protestants soon began to realize that Catholics were now interpreting the Bible as they had been doing since the Renaissance and the Reformation. After 1943, the Pontifical Biblical Commission relinquished its watchdog role and began to issue positive instructive documents. In 1993, on the centenary of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical, the commission issued "The Interpretation of the Bible in Church." The document surveys methods of biblical interpretation, examines hermeneutical questions, reflects on Catholic interpretation of the Bible, and examines the role biblical interpretation plays in the life of the Church.

The document recognizes as valid many interpretations of the Bible, but places primary emphasis on the historical-critical method. The biblical message is solidly rooted in history, Fitzmyer said. Consequently, biblical writings cannot be correctly comprehended apart from their historic conditioning. The document includes characteristics of Catholic interpretation of the Bible, distinguishing it from Protestant or Jewish interpretations by seeing the text as related to a tradition that grew out of the Bible. The document also warns against fundamentalist interpretation because it springs from an ideology that is not biblical.

Discoveries of this century, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls, have given scholars more information about the Bible's historical context. The more we learn about the Bible and its historical context, the more we come into closer contact with the roots of our religious tradition, Fitzmyer said.

A proper interpretation of the Bible requires a respect for Jewish-Christian tradition. We have learned how the ancient Qumran community had such a Jewish tradition of its own, in the light of which it interpreted God's word and produced its own parabiblical literature, he said.

Today, Fitzmyer directs biblical institutes and workshops for lay people, priests, and sisters. Roman Catholic biblical scholars have earned respect and recognition from scholars of other faiths. Until 1955, the Bible was something that many Catholics considered a Protestant book. Now Catholics read the Bible much more than they ever did, he said.

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Revised: 27 October 1997

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