La sessione di apertura del Convegno è stata dedicata alla celebrazione del centenario dell’Istituto. Dopo le parole di saluto del Prof. Kent Richards, SBL Executive Director, e le parole di benvenuto del P. Rettore, è seguita la conferenza del P. Gilbert: The Centenary of the Pontifical Biblical Institute. Alla conferenza hanno poi “risposto” tre professori, membri della SBL: 1) Paul J. Achtemeier, Union Theological Seminary, Richmond; 2) Lawrence Boadt, Washington Theological Union; 3) James L. Kugel, Harvard University. Qui di seguito sono riportati gli interventi di questi tre professori.
Paul J. Achtemeier
«Maurice Gilbert S.J., The Pontifical Biblical Institute: A Century of History (1909-2009)»
How does one review critically a book that is exhaustively researched, cogently organized and clearly written? I guess one begins by reporting that this centennial history of the Pontifical Biblical Institute by Father Maurice Gilbert, S. J., who has intimate personal familiarity with a good portion of the material covered, is exhaustively researched, cogently organized, and clearly written!
In a larger sense, I am not competent to review this report, which is both a historical report and itself an historical document, given its wealth of archival materials, since I do not have the author’s familiarity with the events reported. That is especially true of the report in the last one-third of the book dealing with the history of the PBI in Jerusalem. Unlike Fr. Gilbert, who has intimate and personal acquaintance with many of the developments he reports, I have no personal acquaintance either with the location or the personnel. The account certainly shares all the positive qualities that make the report of the history of the PBI in Rome so commendable, but I shall leave it to others to report on that portion of the book.
What I shall do, therefore, is highlight those parts of the history of the PBI that strike me, as a Protestant Biblical exegete, as interesting and relevant for the 50 and more years I shared, as a scholar, with the existence of the Institute. As a result, the order in which I report materials will be topical rather than chronological.
First, it is interesting, particularly in light of its later history, that the PBI was founded as a bastion of anti-modernism under Fr. Fonck. (I can only wonder at the reaction Fr. Fonck would have had to this panel, and the subject-matter of this conference!) I find in my own background as a member of the Reformed tradition, a similar kind of horror at critical historical scholarship within the same general time-frame. In this instance, an Old Testament scholar at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Charles Augustus Briggs, had the effrontery to adopt, among others things, the documentary hypothesis concerning the origin of the Pentateuch. He was accused of heresy in 1891 by the Presbytery of New York, but acquitted. Two years later, however, in 1893, he was suspended, because of Modernism, from his teaching position by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Among other charges, Prof. Briggs was accused of teaching that Moses did not write the Pentateuch; that Isaiah is not the author of the whole text of the book bearing his name, and that there are historical errors present in the OT narrative.
As a result, Union Seminary withdrew its affiliation with the Presbyterian Church, and became an independent theological institution, as it has remained to this day. Thus the dragon of modernism had reared its ugly head among Protestants traditions as well!
It was finally under Pope Pius XI that the PBI was granted full autonomy, under the realization that the anti-modernist attitude, no longer prevalent in the Institute, but still alive in other elements of the Catholic leadership, was impeding real scholarly work. But the problem was not yet resolved.
In chapter 3 of his book, Fr. Gilbert reports on later attacks on the kind of scholarly work done at the Institute. In the mid fifties (1954-58) new attacks were leveled at the PBI for it’s supposedly following what was termed «liberal Protestant exegesis.» The attack was particularly directed at the historico-critical exegesis of the OT and the Gospels. These attacks, resumed in 1954, became virulent with the knowledge of Pope John XXIII’s desire for a second ecumenical Council, and the Council’s first session. Fr. Gilbert notes that Fr. Vogt, rector of the PBI from 1949-63, defended the Institute as vigorously and effectively against these potentially fatal threats, as Fr. Bea had done during his rectorate.
These attacks reached the point where in 1963, Professors Lyonnet and Zerwick – scholars with whose work I was by then familiar – were banned from teaching exegesis at the PBI, a ban lifted in 1964 under the rectorship of R. A. F. MacKenzie, S.J., another scholar well known and respected among – you will pardon the phrase – «liberal Protestant exegetes.»
On the whole, at the beginning of the Council, there was criticism expressed against the kind of exegesis practiced at the PBI, and a number of charges were leveled. The attacks were finally silenced with the appearance Vatican II’s constitution Dei Verbum, a constitution contributed to by Lyonnet, Schoeckel, de la Potterie, and Zerwick. Fr. Gilbert notes that the institute was able to surmount the attacks leveled against it «thanks to the unfailing trust on the part of the Holy See, the authorities of the Society of Jesus, and, during the Council, the majority of the Bishops» (p. 199). Nevertheless, Fr. Gilbert notes that no PBI professor functioned as «expert» at the Doctrinal Commission of the second Vatican Council.
Of particular interest to me is the discussion of the increasing ecumenicity of Biblical studies, also reported in chapter III. As early as 1935, both catholic and protestant scholars participated in an OT Congress in Goettingen. Perhaps most significant in this whole development was the issuing of Divino afflante Spiritu by Pope Pius XII in 1943. Fr. Gilbert notes that Fr. Bea, at that time rector of the PBI, had a hand in the formulation of this document, and was a key person in the continuing development of the PBI. On a personal note, I can attest to the increasing ecumenicity of biblical exegesis during the past 40 years or so. As a participant in the Roman Cstholic/World Reformed Alliance Bilateral Discussions, World Level, from 1975-81, I attended a number of sessions, both in Rome and in Geneva, and found great collegiality among the representatives both Catholic and Reformed.
That collegiality and ecumenism were also borne out for me as an invited non-Lutheran participant in the discussions sponsored by the Lutheran/Catholic Dialogue in the US that produced the two volumes Peter in the New Testament (1973) and Mary in the New Testament (1978). Participants included people known to the PBI, among them Fr. Myles Bourke, Prof. R. E. Brown, Prof. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. and Karl Donfried. These discussions between Catholics and Protestants, the first on so significant a theological issue since the Reformation, were at the time considered somewhat adventuresome, not to say daring.
In preparing the report, later published as the book, we followed a time-honored procedure, voting on the final results after the discussion of each relevant passage. The thing that impressed me the most during these discussions, along with the true collegiality – we were all friends before the discussions began – was the fact that at no point in those votes were all Catholics found on one side, all Protestants on the other. When one considers the neuralgic nature of the understanding of Peter and Mary in both Catholic and Protestant circles over some centuries, I found that quite remarkable.
At that point, I concluded that the ecumenical problem involving Catholic/Protestant NT exegesis in the United States had been resolved, a conclusion regularly reinforced during my long participation in the Catholic Biblical Association of American, as well as the ecumenical nature of the membership of the Society of Biblical Literature. Our present meeting adds further confirmation!
Let me conclude by citing two passages from Fr. Gilbert’s book that resonated particularly strongly with me. The first: «But the Biblical Institute above all takes the intervention of the Word of God in our history seriously; people of flesh and blood like us wrote it and passed it on to us. It is up to us to hear it in all its purity. This conviction is also an act of faith and therefore the message of the Bible…remains the key to theology, pastoral activity, and the spiritual life of every believer» (310). And the second: «Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit who caused it to be written» (470). I believe both statements would resonate with similar strength among many Protestant Biblical exegetes, and give confirmation to the observation that in biblical studies, the ecumenical problem has gone a long way toward its resolution.
Lawrence Boadt, C.S.P.
Remarks on the 100thAnniversary
of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome
As a proud graduate of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, I am honored to have been asked by Kent Richards and the International SBL Planning Committee to participate in this wonderful event. I received a Licentiate in Scripture Studies in 1974 and a Doctorate in 1976, and they have served me very well over the intervening thirty-five years. I also want to take this occasion to salute the current faculty and staff who have not only kept up the spirit and the standards I remember from the 1970’s, but also to thank very personally all those who taught me in this wonderful university during my three years here in Rome. Almost all have by now gone on to their heavenly reward, but as with all dedicated and spirited professors, their learning, wit and insights live on and are deeply part of my own approach to the Scriptures and revealed in whatever small contributions I have been able to make along the years. Finally, I want to thank in a very special way Father Maurice Gilbert and his History of the Institute. It was a historical goldmine without losing any of the drama of a hundred years of anything but quiet academic life.
It seemed most appropriate for me to reflect this evening on two aspects of the Institute. The first is why the Biblical Institute has been so central and important to the Catholic Church as Catholic scholars have taken their places in biblical studies over the last century. The second is a number of observations on my own experience as a student at the Biblicum, a viewpoint I believe none of our other speakers will give this evening.
The Critical Idea of a Roman Center of Biblical Studies
The Biblical Institute originated in a dream that Catholic scholarship could use a first-class intellectual and academic biblical resource which would include both a major library and a top-quality faculty. The idea was born under Pope Leo XIII as early as 1893 as biblical studies throughout the Protestant world, in particular, was being recognized as first-class scholarship and was making breakthroughs in historical recovery of the biblical text, the wealth of ancient Near Eastern literature, and the sociological and anthropological world of ancient civilizations, including that of Ancient Israel and Roman Palestine. Catholics had had almost no contributions to make to this wave of new discovery. Leo XIII and those around him realized a renaissance in Catholic intellectual tradition was needed and he not only mandated a recovery of Thomistic Theology, but through his encyclical Providentissimus Deus of 1893 encouraged professional biblical studies in a church where it had never had any independent standing before, and dreamed of training competent scholars and teachers for the entire Catholic world. This was an important intellectual breakthrough in Catholic official thinking, and if had proceeded as dreamed, Catholic scholarship might have found itself in the early twentieth century where it came to be by 1960. But it was not to be.
A Stormy Life under Modernism
Leo’s hopes took 16 more years to materialize under his successor, Pope Pius X, and this was a fiery period of conflict in the Catholic Church over the question of Modernism, in which the traditionalists saw the impact of historical-critical methods as destroying the supernatural foundations of faith in an inerrant Bible. The most radical rejection of modern learning culminated in 1907 with two decrees of Pius X that forbade
Seminaries and Catholic-affiliated universities and schools from any association with such historical-critical methodologies. Oaths were forced on priests and professors to reject modernism as the Pope had defined it; professors were let go, and a general stagnation in theology began that lasted well into the 1940’s. Even respected and famed Catholic linguists and biblical scholars were put under suspicion and could never write fully freely as scholars again. In a recent article, William Portier of Dayton University has completed a study of the devastating effects of Modernist condemnations on a newly blooming fraternity of American theologians and Biblicists [Divided Friends: Portraits of the Roman Catholic Modern Crisis in the United States; forthcoming]. Four leading young Catholic priest-thinkers were all silenced and forced out of their fields of scholarship. Two left the Catholic Church in anger, and two went into quiet conformity. But Catholic theological reflection on the public level in America was thoroughly flattened.
Fr. Gilbert brings out well the conflicts between conservatives who wanted the biblical Institute to be founded to hold the line on the tradition, and those who saw the opportunities for a Catholic scholarship that could cooperate with or challenge the best of the secular and Protestant worlds. Ironically, the most influential founder of the Biblical Institute, Leopold Fonck, SJ, leaned to the traditionalist camp, but never lost sight of the aim of quality and professionalism that a school would have to maintain. While the Pope gave rein to the Pontifical Biblical Commission as the official voice for Catholic biblical scholarship, and it issued ever more draconian statements insisting on literal readings of texts, the Biblical Institute came into being, with a top-grade faculty in areas of linguistics, ancient texts and exegesis and set about their business of building the best biblical center in the world. Fr. Fonck and the Vatican did understand the Institute as a bulwark against modernism, but fortunately, it stayed clear of the major battles like those that embroiled Fr .LaGrange, O.P., of the Ecole Biblique. Remarkably, as the history and documents show, it barely acknowledged in its program the fears and concerns of the anti-modernists. But behind the scenes, the correspondence between curia officials and the Jesuits who were to staff this new Institute show how lively was the Byzantine courtly dance of politics within the Vatican. Perhaps it is a tribute to the intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church that in the end, scholarship was worth establishing officially even when suspected of opposition to current church thinking.
The Institute limped along in World War I as might be expected, but afterwards, still blocked throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s from doing much modern exegesis in dialogue with other non-Catholic biblical colleagues, it concentrated on research and study of ancient languages. A second full faculty in Oriental languages was established, and through scholars such as Anton Deimal, great strides were made in understanding Sumerian, for example. Paul Joüon’s remarkable Grammar of Biblical Hebrew has been a lifelong companion because it really does recognize the historical nature of biblical Hebrew usage. Work on the Latin Vulgate, examination of Greek papyri, and production of linguistic resources flourished. This twenty years saw the final victory of the Institute as an independent academic center when it got the right to confer doctorates in 1928, and the Pontifical Biblical Commission finally took a back seat and the constant flow of anti-modern criticism ceased. In 1927, the Institute opened a Jerusalem campus, which has widened the areas of research to archaeology and geography and more opportunities for cooperation with other institutions in the Holy Land, a development which was limited then, but would blossom in the 1980’s and 1990’s, with cooperative arrangements with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Ecole Biblique, the premier Dominican School of Biblical Studies, and the Catholic Biblical Association of America.
Coming of Age
The heavy shadow of the anti-modernist movement was gradually lifted under Pope Pius XI, who personally encouraged greater scholarly openness throughout his papacy in the 1920’s and 1930’s. His attitude climaxed in the encyclical letter of his friend and successor, Pope Pius XII in 1943, Divino Afflante Spiritu, which called Catholic biblical scholars to a deeper and more historical critical biblical studies. Free to do modern exegesis as well as language proficiency, a new generation of graduates began to change the whole educational process at the graduate level throughout Catholic seminaries and universities in Europe and America, and gradually after the Second Vatican Council, to the rest of the world. Even the Vatican Council was still a battleground in which traditionalists tried to prevent such developments. Many older Catholic scholars remember the efforts of Cardinal Ottaviani of the Holy Office to dismiss professors Max Zerwick and Stanislaus Lyonnet, two distinguished New Testament scholars, on trumped up charges of rejecting the original historical bases to New Testament accounts. With the appointment of Agustin Bea to Cardinal and a peritus at the Council, did the new critical approach find its way into the very fabric of the Council documents once for all. Especially Pope Paul VI supported the new biblical approach and blocked all attempts to undo the new gains.
Its significance for the Roman Catholic Church
I have noted so many key moments from the early history of the Biblical Institute because it is hard for those who grow up in the American or European University systems to imagine the tension that always stands at the heart of Catholic exegesis. The need to both seek truth and knowledge goes back to Christianity’s earliest years, fueled by the historical event of Jesus as divine revelation. The Catholic Church guarded and nourished intellectual movements through 1500 years. But at the same time, exegesis and Scripture are crucial to the daily life of the liturgy and worship and doctrinal concerns of the Church. Thus Catholic biblical scholars are constantly struggling to serve the best criteria of research alongside efforts to make the Bible a living word of God to believers. The statistics of who have graduated from the Biblical Institute in its 100 years indicate this unusual role as both scholarly and pastoral inspiration for the whole Catholic World. There have been 7,194 students who have followed programs in that time, and of these, 4,784 have received Master’s Level Licentiates, and 340 the doctorate. They come from all five continents, although the majority have come from the western European and North American academic world. But note that before the Vatican Council, only 21 students from the continent of Africa received degrees, but since 1965, there have been over 445 African graduates; from Asia 82 before the Council, 687 since; from Latin America, 138 before the Council, 376 since. This has made the Roman school the center for developing local intellectual leaders in the Bible throughout parts of the world where Roman Catholics had few if any universities or centers of Catholic learning. They are now spread widely and although they do not have a mission of «converting» local culture and contextual use of the scriptures, they provide a cadre of scholars training in critical method and who bring a broader and more ecumenical understanding to their scholarship, which has made them competent and vital partners in the Academy. One need only look at the lively journal literature and biblical scholarship in India to see how this influence has joined Indian scholars in the dialogue with their western counterparts.
My Experience of the Biblical Institute
I was trained in the seminary at St. Paul’s College and Catholic University in Washington DC under a new generation of Catholic professors who had come back from the Biblical Institute as the first generation of those trained in light of the new directions of Divino Afflante Spiritu. They included Barnabas Ahern, Neil McEleney, Phil King, and Tom Barrosse. In Semitics at Catholic University I was trained partly by a new generation of linguistically trained Institute graduates such as Alex DiLella and Aloysius Fitzgerald (not to mention an older but very committed generation such as Louis Hartman and Pat Skehan). I arrived in Rome as a graduate of Catholic University of America’s theology school and Semitics Language departments in 1971. I stayed there through 1974, and was officially awarded the Doctorate in 1976. They were wonderful years because the Council had just ended and the school was alive with growth and enthusiasm.
To the horror of Msgr. Skehan, I became the disciple of Mitchell Dahood in biblical studies and Ugaritic languages because my background with a Master’s in Semitic languages allowed me to skip most of the basic course requirements and go directly to advanced study. I had classmates who went on to make major contributions across the world: H. van Dijk in Europe; Tony Ceresko in India; Bill Irwin in Canada; John Meier in the USA. Most of us published our dissertation in the learned series of the Biblical Institute itself, the Analecta Biblica or Biblia et Orientalia. But many colleagues were studying in American University programs such as Johns Hopkins under William Albright or at Harvard under George Ernest Wright or in Europe in German and Dutch universities and publishing in the BZAW, HSM, or the SBLDS. It was a time of flowering and we felt, particularly under Dahood, to be part of a movement that incorporated historical, archaeological, linguistic and exegetical skills together and that was shared by our colleagues in all these varied centers.
I did my doctoral dissertation on Ugaritic linguistic parallels to the language of the Oracles against Nations, especially in Ezekiel’s Oracles against Egypt in chapters 29–32. To show how free the scholarly atmosphere had become once the former modernist shadow had passed, I have an embarrassing story of my own study. When I had completed all requirements before undertaking the dissertation, one had to pass a public lecture before the faculty, the topic of which was assigned 24 hours in advance. They assigned me the exegesis of Ezekiel 37:1-14, the famous passage of the dead bones that come to life. In view of my work with Dahood, I saw a magnificent theological and dramatic development within the passage culminating in God’s personal promise to bestow his very own spirit on this people. I was quite pleased with how it held together, but when I had finished delivering the talk, the primary questioner, Fr, Ernest Vogt, passed because I had failed to do what was asked of me, a purely exegetical presentation. Mitch Dahood, the director, was second questioner, and asked a couple of desultory questions and stopped, while the third examiner basically passed, under the circumstances, so that no one knew what to do. The chair, Carlo Martini, suggested I go home and they would inform me of their decision later. Dismayed I waited for several hours by the phone until the call came and they announced I had passed. I discovered I had gotten into the middle of a violent dispute among the faculty themselves around whether Dahood’s approach to the linguistic and textual accuracy was acceptable in place of traditional exegesis of the theological meaning and tradition of the reading of the text. I figured Vogt voted 0, Dahood and Remi Lack voted 100 each and it came out with my passing—probably just barely, but I never asked!
Working with Fr. Dahood was also validation of going past the nineteenth century historical-critical methods and the concentration on sources and older forms, and embracing the opening to literary, rhetorical dimensions of the text. All graduates who worked under Dahood have become dedicated rhetorical and literary critics in reading the text. And yet not as Mitch himself did, often seeking meaning in extra linguistic parallels, but instead doing wholistic reading of the text as message and literature.
One regret I had was that so few of us were at the doctoral level at the very time the lower Licentiate program was opening up to hopeful young scholars from the Third World. I had very little interaction with these students who are now professors throughout the Third World. But Dahood’s insistence on careful analysis of every grammatical aspect of words and texts and learning how to use comparative linguistics, and the lure of the 100,000 plus volumes of the Library left us little time to interact the way I now wish I had.
As a highly centralized church, Roman Catholicism focuses much of its attention on its doctrinal concerns, and much of the authoritative weight is centered in the Vatican in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, so the very existence of a first-class Biblical University, linked closely to that Congregation, has provided an important balance that has emphasized the vital importance of the Bible in the Dialogue of Faith. May it continue to prosper ad multos annos.
One Hundred Years of the Pontifical Biblical Institute
I wish to begin by thanking those responsible for having invited me to join with my distinguished colleagues at this opening session in honor of the Pontifical Biblical Institute and Father Gilbert’s just-published history of its activities over the past one hundred years.
I must admit from the start that, although this is my first visit to the PBI, I have always felt a certain kinship with it. I suppose in part this is because Orthodox Jews and Jesuits have a few things in common, in particular, a certain reputation for complicated argumentation. I am sure some of those present today know the old French joke about the Jesuit who comes to a new town and asks a passerby how to get to the church. The passerby answers: «Vous ne trouverez jamais mon père, c’est tout droit.» (You’ll never find it, Father, it’s straight ahead). This reputation is, of course, shared by those schooled in the ways of the BabylonianTalmud; indeed, I once saw a French summary of an English article that spoke pejoratively of certain book’s complicated argument, which it described at one point as Talmudic; the French summary said: raisonnement jésuite.
Reading Father Gilbert’s history, however, I am struck by another point of resemblance between Jesuits and Orthodox Jews, this one perhaps a bit more serious. Much of the first part of the book is taken up with the birth pangs that accompanied the Institute’s creation, a product of what was, at the turn of the twentieth century, the Church’s deep ambivalence about modern biblical scholarship. It was not only that this scholarship had been until that time an almost exclusively Protestant undertaking, but what this circumstance reflected, a profound disagreement about the very nature of biblical exegesis and the role of tradition and traditional teachings within it.
It is a common oversimplification to say that the Protestant proponents of sola scriptura accorded no place to ancient traditions of interpretation in their own attempts to understand the Bible. It might be truer to say that, try as they might, even those Protestants most committed to throwing out all the old, Church-sponsored ways of reading Scripture soon found that they could not utterly eliminate the role of tradition in their own exegesis. Nevertheless, for Roman Catholics at the turn of the twentieth century, the growing body of modern biblical scholarship, now bolstered by a wealth of newly discovered texts, artifacts, and indeed whole cities unearthed in the lands of the ancient Near East, posed the most serious challenge to their own traditions of the sensus spiritualis of Scripture and two millennia of authoritative interpretations built on it.
The founder of the PBI, Pope Pius X, was in some ways the perfect embodiment of this ambivalence. He is, of course, known as the author of the encyclical «Pascendi Dominici Gregis» (1907) concerning «the doctrines of the Modernists,» in which he decried modernist thinkers’ «dismembering of the Sacred Books and [their] division of them into [different] the centuries.» The result of this activity, he wrote,
is naturally that the Scriptures can no longer be attributed to the authors whose names they bear. The Modernists have no hesitation in affirming commonly that these books, and especially the Pentateuch and the first three Gospels, have been gradually formed by additions to a primitive, brief narration – by interpolations of theological or allegorical interpretation, by transitions, by joining different passages together. … The traces of this evolution, they tell us, are so visible in Scripture that one might almost write a history of them. Indeed this history they do actually write, and with such an easy security that one might believe them to have seen with their own eyes the writers at work through the ages, amplifying the Sacred Books. To aid them in this, they call to their assistance that branch of criticism which they call textual, and labor to show that such a fact or such a phrase is not in its right place, and adducing other arguments of the same kind. They seem, in fact, to have constructed for themselves certain types of narration and discourses, upon which they base their decision as to whether a thing is out of place or not. ... To hear them talk about their works on Sacred Scripture, through which they have been able to discover so much that is defective, one would imagine that before them nobody ever even glanced through the pages of Scripture...
A far more detailed critique of modern biblical scholarship is to be found in the decree Lamentabili Sano issued during Pius X’s papacy – but I leave that to the curious. I may be reading too much between the lines of Father Gilbert’s history, but in the light of the above I get the definite impression that the PBI’s founder never intended it to follow the course that it has. Indeed, Pius X said as much in his letter «Scripturae Sacrae,» cited by Gilbert, in which he describes the purpose of the future Institute to be that of «promot[ing] biblical scholarship as the Church understands it» and «to defend, publish, and promote sound exegesis according to the norms of the Holy See, especially against some recent ‘false, erroneous, rash, heretical opinions.’» (Gilbert, 23)
Well, this happens with institutions of all sorts – they develop a will, and a direction, of their own. But you may recall I said a moment ago that this is another element that, for me at least, links the careers of Orthodox Judaism and the PBI together. Orthodox Jews also have a history of antipathy to modern biblical scholarship, indeed, some of the problems we now face are similar to those that confronted the PBI back in 1909. I doubt that, if we were to found our own sort of Biblical Institute today, it would follow quite the same course as the PBI; still, such an institution might well provide a lively meeting-place for informed and honest Orthodox biblical scholars.
Let me return to Father Gilbert’s history. After its somewhat wobbly beginnings, the Institute came to define itself and its goals in the context of changes in the Church’s own leadership as well as in the wider world. One important event, as I understand it, was the appointment of Father Augustin Bea – in some ways, the dominant figure of this history – as rector of the PBI following the departure of Father Leopold Fonck from the Institute in 1929. (Father Bea had actually been a professor at the Institute since 1924, and he served as rector from 1930 to 1949 – though he continued to teach there even after his term of office, until his appointment as a cardinal in 1959.) He, more than any other individual, embodied the complex spirit of the Institute during those years, and it was his rectorate that guided the PBI in a period of dramatic changes. Father Gilbert offers a kind-hearted, though not altogether uncritical, look at Bea’s influence during his time at the PBI. Another crucial figure in determining the PBI’s eventual course was Pope Pius XII, a dedicated sponsor of modern biblical interpretation and the issuer of the famous encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu in 1943, which fundamentally changed the Church’s approach to critical scholarship.
Readers of Father Gilbert’s history will find these changes narrated in some detail. Indeed, one of the book’s salient features is its combination of primary texts and extensive bibliography with the author’s own, synthetic chapters summarizing each of the main periods in the Institute’s history: 1885-1909, the events leading up to its founding; 1909-1934, when the PBI was first seeking to define itself; 1934-1968, called by Gilbert the time when «the Bible finds its place at last»; 1968-1985, «In the wake of the Council»; and 1985-1999, its most recent period of activity. The focus of these chapters is, quite naturally, the Institute itself – the internal and external struggles it encountered over doctrinal issues and administrative politics, as well as the scholarly activities of some of its individual members (and the controversies that their work sometimes inspired).
In so doing – and perhaps because of some institutional modesty – Father Gilbert underplays somewhat the tremendous impact that the Institute has had on biblical studies worldwide. I daresay almost everyone present at this gathering – or indeed, at any gathering of people who work on the Bible or any of the fields related to it, no matter what their religious affiliation – has at least one of the PBI’s many and distinguished publications within easy reach of his or her computer. I stopped hunting for books in the Analecta biblica and Analecta orientalia series in my own library after having counted seventeen. And who among us is not a regular reader of the journals Biblica and Orientalia, publications whose founding goes back to 1920? Not to mention the Elenchus bibliographicus, still a much used tool of scholarship in the age of computer searches.
But mentioning such publications is to slight the PBI’s main contribution to scholarship, its own faculty and students, who together have helped to shape the course of contemporary biblical scholarship. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what the history of this scholarship would look like without the work of – and here I will mention only a few people whose work in the field of the Hebrew Bible and related matters I know personally, and in no particular order, not even alphabetical – well, Father Maurice Gilbert himself (who, in addition to being the author of this history, has been an outstanding scholar of Israelite wisdom literature and prophecy); the Assyriologist Alfred Pohl; Alberto Vaccari; Paul Joüon, Luis Alonso-Schoekel, William Moran, Mitchell Dahood, the New Testament scholar Albert Vanhoye, Joseph Sievers, Martin McNamara, the classicist Edouard des Places, Roger O’Callaghan, Joseph Bonsirven, Dennis McCarthy, Leopold Sabourin, Roger Le Deaut, Norbert Lohfink, Joseph Fitzmyer, Jean-Louis Ska, John Meier, Alberto Soggin, Lawrence Boadt, James Swetnam – all these and dozens more passed through the PBI’s gates, either as students or faculty members. (Again, I do ask the forgiveness of those not mentioned in this hastily assembled list – their absence is due more to the limitations of my own knowledge and of my areas of specialization than to anything else. And lest I be accused of reverse discrimination, let me also mention three Harvard students from my own time who have ended up at the Institute: Paul Mankowski, Agustinus Gianto, and Peter Dubovský – great young scholars all.)
If I may take myself as a rather typical example, I haven’t known personally too many of the people just mentioned (save for the Harvard ones), but most of them have nonetheless been my teachers in one way or another. I remember that day in Madrid in (I think) 1970, when I spotted a copy of Alonso-Schoekel’s Estudios de Poetica Hebrea –the title itself was, for me at the time, something of a revelation: could one really study biblical poetics? I bought the book and spent the next few days reading it from cover to cover. I suppose it’s fair to say that I ended up disagreeing with some of it, but what left a lasting impression was the author’s profound engagement with the history of biblical scholarship as well as with current views; this is a perspective that has never left me.
I also remember when Mitchell Dahood’s Psalms commentary was coming out, volume by volume. It has become fashionable among scholars to downplay some of its contents, but I think it important to stress what a contribution it was at the time to seek to view the psalms through the lens of Ugarit, and especially to argue for the linguistic, religious, and cultural continuum joining Ugarit to northern Israel. In addition, I would have to say that many of this commentary’s insights are still valid and a light to the footsteps of those who seek to read the psalms today. It is perhaps worth adding that Dahood’s early work on the language of Ecclesiastes (Qohelet) has also proved quite valuable, even if today we have a rather more complex understanding of the question.
Like many people, I have had a copy of Paul Joüon’s Grammaire de l’hébreu biblique in easy reach since graduate school. His extraordinary feel for biblical syntax – in an era before computer searches of syntactically tagged biblical texts – stands out in that grammar, as well as in his commentaries: a truly remarkable scholar and an early mainstay of the Institute.
I could go on to comment on all those mentioned above, and others, but I did want to conclude with a word about one PBI scholar whom I had the privilege of knowing quite well over a long period, and that was the Assyriologist and biblical scholar William L. Moran, who left the Institute to take a job at Harvard. I first met Bill when I was a student in his elementary Akkadian class at Harvard, where I was simultaneously pleased and horrified to realize that for him, that class was to be the pedagogical twin of high school Latin in his own education. He thus liked to circle the students seated around the seminar table while demanding verb paradigms rattled off by heart or verb plug-ins in simple sentences; jovial humiliation was not an unknown teaching technique.
It was in Moran’s class, I think, that I first heard the German word Sprachgefühl, and no word could better characterize his own mastery of Akkadian: his seemingly instinctive sense of how the Babylonian man-in-the-street in the second millennium would have chosen to express himself on matters great or small. Later, when I became his colleague, I got to know another side of Bill. He was a man with an extraordinary feel for poetry, and a love of it, of English poetry as well as Akkadian, and a good deal of everything in between. Consequently he was no stranger to the Cambridge poetry scene; he knew some of the local poets personally and sometimes went to their readings, as well as to the well-lubricated parties after them. It was this poetic sensibility, I think, as much as his Sprachgefühl (and obviously the two were connected) that made him such an extraordinary translator.
As I said, I could go on, but I hope these brief words are sufficient to help concretize the question I posed earlier: What would biblical scholarship of the last century have looked like without the contributions of those who studied and taught at the PBI? A single article such as Bill Moran’s famous one about the love of God in Deuteronomy changed not only the shape of our discipline but served as a spur and a methodological model for a new generation of comparative work, some of it undertaken by people who probably don’t even know where it all started…
If I may circle back to the beginning of these remarks, I hope you will not think I am being ironic in saying that the one thing that has been relatively neglected (and I stress the relatively) at the PBI has been the charge given to it by its first founder, the mission to somehow seek to think about modern biblical scholarship in the context of Church tradition and traditional exegesis. By this I certainly don’t mean to suggest it should indulge in apologetics of any kind. But I think it is simply a fact that the Church’s traditional (so-called «pre-modern») biblical exegesis is itself a development of an earlier way of interpreting Scripture, the free-wheeling, highly creative approach to interpretation that was practiced by Jews of various schools in the closing centuries before the common era. Clement of Alexandria learned how to read the Bible from Philo of Alexandria, and – as a number of PBI scholars in particular have demonstrated – the interpretation of Old Testament texts in the New Testament and other early Christian documents was profoundly influenced by earlier midrashic and targumic traditions. Indeed, interpreting Scripture was a major Jewish preoccupation long before the precise boundaries of Scripture had been determined; it’s right there in the biblical apocrypha and pseudepigrapha as well as in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The implications of all this do not seem to me to be particularly obscure; it suggests that modern scholars ought to reevaluate the Church’s so-called pre-modern approach to Scripture. For, in the light of what we know today, that way of reading the text – along with its contemporary and close cousin, the rabbinic way – ought rightly to be seen as the last stage of the Bible’s own emergence within the biblical period. In other words, the old sensus spiritualis is not an embarrassing little thing that happened after there was a Bible; rather, it was the culmination, or a culmination, of a process that really made the Bible the Bible, a process that began way back with the anonymous rewriters of biblical texts at Qumran and in the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, indeed, back with the anonymous editors and interpolators who put the finishing touches on collections of prophetic and other writings within the Hebrew Bible.
Understanding this fundamental truth might help reverse the direction in which we lead our students and readers, ever backward to an earlier, simpler (and therefore, supposedly, purer) form of the text’s individual components. That work of course is fine, but in the end, history worked in the opposite direction: one piece of text was joined to another, editors reorganized snippets of writing and sometimes inserted their own additions, and this work in general was hardly an insignificant part of the Bible’s creation. In a real sense, it is this last stage that made the Bible, putting onto these texts the particular spin that was to be such a big part of what the Bible has been ever after. That «spin» may be isolated in a particular set of assumptions about what the Bible is and how it is to be read. Those assumptions were embodied in the great corpus of ancient biblical interpretation that was well on its way by the third and second centuries BCE, and (this is really my point) it was these assumptions, and the forms of biblical interpretation that they generated, that ultimately came to be adopted by the early Church as the Bible’s sensus spiritualis. I should think that an interest in precisely these processes would be nowhere more at home than at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. Perhaps indeed that is something to look forward to in its second century of existence.