When Jerome Murphy O’Connor died last November, his Telegraph obituary ended as follows:
‘In his last book, The Keys to Jerusalem, published last year, he addressed several problems to which he felt there had been no satisfactory answers, including what really happened in the Garden of Gethsemane, where, according to all four Gospels, immediately after the Last Supper Jesus took a walk to pray. “How do we know the words of Jesus’s prayer?” he asked. “If the disciples were asleep and they had no time with Jesus after he was arrested and before he was put to death, how does anyone know what Jesus prayed? Where is the source for the content?”
His answer was: “They made it up!”
Father Jerry Murphy-O’Connor tended to dismiss criticism that such questioning might undermine belief, arguing that those whose faith is shaky would lose it anyway, whereas those looking for spiritual refreshment rather than crude proof would come away strengthened.’
This bothered me for a couple of reasons.
In the first place, I thought, if we place any trust in the Resurrection accounts, as one would hope a Dominican priest might, we should recognise the tradition of Jesus having spent time with the disciples after his resurrection; if he spent time with them, isn’t it more than likely that one of them would have asked how he’d felt in Gethsemane, in his last hours of freedom?
Secondly, I was uneasy at the cavalier attitude displayed to Jerome towards those whose faith is shaky. Weak faith isn’t a terrible thing, after all; it might not be anywhere near as good as great faith, but Jesus is pretty clear that ‘if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.’ (Matt. 17:20) A weak faith – a shaky, frail faith – can be the seed of something so much greater. Our job isn’t to trample the seeds of faith; it’s to nurture them to help become what God wants them to be.
All of which, I’m afraid, somewhat jaundiced my attitude to a couple of short articles by Jerome I read back in January. Even a cursory reading left me troubled by them, as they struck me as possibly a touch paranoid, but in order to get a fuller picture I thought I'd best take a look at exactly what he'd said about Gethsemane, and to think about it afresh.
I revisited the article where I’d first heard of Jerome’s Gethsemane theory, and indeed dug out the article from The Keys to Jerusalem itself – the relevant part of the book can be read on Google, though the guts of the article are more easily available. The full version of the article is, to be fair, somewhat more nuanced that the newspaper summaries would suggest, but nonetheless, it is clear that Jerome’s favoured theory starts from the assumptions that the Apostles had slept through Jesus’ travails and could hardly have asked him what had happened at any point between his capture and crucifixion.
‘If Jesus was not the source, then the only possibility is that certain disciples projected onto Jesus the emotions that they imagined they would experience if they suddenly realized their death was imminent. As the followers of a crucified criminal, they knew that they were walking a dangerous path and must have reflected frequently on how they would react if threatened with death. ‘
Or, if you like, they made it up.
Against this, in the book Jerome does acknowledge the existence of some counter-arguments, but makes it clear that he has little time for them. He notes how Raymond E. Brown described the view that the line that the Apostles were asleep and therefore couldn’t have observed what had happened as nothing but the objection of a ‘village atheist’; Brown himself was of the view that the Apostles had not been simultaneously, steadily, and soundly asleep, while others have ventured that the young man in the linen cloth of Mark 14:51 could have witnessed Jesus’ torments, and others still have noted that in the New Testament ‘sleep’ does not always mean ‘slumber’ but can simply mean a state of unreadiness.
Finally, Jerome wraps up the article by acknowledging that others – going back to Martin Luther – had speculated that ‘Jesus had talked about the Gethsemane experience in the post-resurrection meetings with his disciples.’ None of these counter-arguments are seriously addressed; they’re noted as an afterthought, and never truly engaged with, let alone refuted; it’s as though Jerome regarded these hypotheses as unworthy of his attention.
Gloomily pondering this, I returned to a couple of articles by Jerome I’d recently been given to read, entitled ‘History in the New Testament: The Contribution of Dei Verbum’ and ‘History in the New Testament: After Dei Verbum’. It didn’t take long before the margins were fairly heavily annotated.
The first article starts reasonably enough, I think, with a straightforward story of how a thesis defence in the early days of Vatican II drew an audience that included twelve cardinals and about 400 bishops, all there in support of the scholarly integrity of the Jesuits of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, which had come under pressure from high-ranking curial cardinals who feared that a critical approach to Biblical research threatened the Gospels’ historical integrity. Jerome goes on to tell how the initial conservative schema for Dei Verbum had been rejected the day before the aforementioned thesis defence – the fathers thus had an unexpected free day – and rewritten several times before it was accepted almost three years later by 2344 to 6.
It didn’t take long, though, before Jerome’s article started to unravel. The fifth chapter of Dei Verbum, he says, is devoted to the New Testament and gives pride of place to the Gospels, ‘whose historicity the Church affirms without hesitation’. Jerome notes that the text on this embodies a qualification: the Gospels ‘faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men and women, actually did and taught for their eternal salvation’. For Jerome the final words are all-important, but I’m not sure; it seems very easy to interpret that sentence, out of context, as saying that we should regard things Jesus said and did for our eternal salvation as having been faithfully recorded, but need not regard anything else as having been faithfully recorded.
That may sound like I’m picky, but watch what happens next…
Jerome continues by saying that what chapter five says is ‘reinforced and clarified’ by chapter three, which should cause us to stop short; three comes before five, and it makes little sense to think of an early chapter as a clarification of later one, it being more natural and more logical to think of the later chapter as an extrapolation of the earlier one.
Noting that ‘truth’ has replaced ‘inerrancy’ in the document as the correlative of ‘inspiration’, Jerome cites section eleven of Dei Verbum, the first part of chapter three, as saying that the consequence of inspiration is that ‘we must acknowledge the Books of Scripture as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error the truth that God wished to be recorded in the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.’ Again, he says, the key thing is that what matters is ‘the sacred truth of salvation’.
All very well, but how do we discern what is recorded for the sake of salvation and what is merely incidental? It’s here that Jerome commits an enormous sin of omission, one that I think undermines both articles and which – if it reflected his approach to scripture in general – would in no small way undermines his claim to be regarded as an authentically Catholic scholar.
How is the sacred truth of salvation to be discerned? Jerome cites section twelve of Dei Verbum as answering this:
‘Since in Sacred Scripture God has spoken through human agents and in human fashion, the interpreter … should carefully search out what the sacred writers truly intended to express … To determine the intention of the sacred writers, one must attend to such things as “literary forms”. For truth is differently presented and expressed in various types of historical writings.’
Reading this, having already read Dei Verbum myself, left me uneasy; I knew the document said that, of course, but I was sure it said more than that. So I turned to it, and found myself frowning. For starters, I was bothered by the phrases Jerome had omitted, being ‘if they are to ascertain what God has wished to communicate to us’ and ‘that meaning which God had thought well to manifest through the medium of their words’; why had Jerome left these out? They seem to suggest, after all, that we should be thinking not simply about what the evangelists wanted to convey, but about what God was trying to convey.
More troubling, though, was the final paragraph of section twelve, to which Jerome appeared to pay no heed at all. Having outlined the importance of a genuine historico-critical method, Dei Verbum continued:
‘But since sacred scripture must be read an interpreted with its divine authorship in mind, no less attention must be devoted to the content and unity of the whole of scripture, taking into account the tradition of the entire church and the analogy of faith, if we are to derive their true meaning from the sacred texts.’
Dei Verbum goes on to say that ‘it is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, towards a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of sacred scripture,’ making clear then that exegetes shouldn’t just work, as per Jerome’s article, with an eye to the human authorship of individual Biblical texts, but should also keep in mind the divine authorship of the Bible as a whole. It’s a classic case of the Catholic ‘both/and’. There’s no trace in Jerome’s article of the principle that both rules should be followed; indeed, there’s no trace of the fact that Dei Verbum detailed more than one rule.
At this point it’s worth remembering that chapter three of Dei Verbum, far from being there as a buttress and a clarification of chapter five, it is there to outline the principles under which the Old and New Testaments should be examined. The very first paragraph of chapter three twice mentions the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and concludes as follows:
‘To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and faculties so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.’
Now, call me old-fashioned, but isn’t the import of that final sentence that everything that’s in the text is there because God wants it to be there? It may be there in a human way, embodying human literary forms, but in terms of basic content, whatever’s there is there because God wants it to be, and there’s nothing superfluous.
There doesn’t seem to be much scope, if we follow these rules and this overriding principle, for the notion that when it came to Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane, the Apostles just ‘made it up’. Given how Jerome sums up Dei Verbum and its implications for New Testament scholarship, it rather looks as though he’s just cherry-picked from the Church’s rules.
Still, Jerome’s first article ends on the sensible point that Dei Verbum is adamant that simplistic approaches to the reading of the New Testament are unacceptable; his second article entails praise for popes who recognised this, with special praise being given to Benedict XVI for his use of the critical method in his Jesus of Nazareth books and to John Paul II for his rejection of what might be deemed ‘Catholic fundamentalism’.
Early in this second article there’s an odd minor paragraph which talks of ‘hints of resistance’ in Rome to serious Biblical research; Jerome says that ‘apparently’ the Pontifical Biblical Commission was asked to report on the question of the ordination of women, but when it’s ‘leaked’ conclusion was that ‘nothing in the New Testament was opposed to their ordination as priests’, the Vatican hushed the whole thing up.
That ‘apparently’ is a slippery word, as it gives the impression that Jerome is merely sharing an unsubstantiated rumour, but the comment on the conclusion is all the more problematic; if an investigation should have found that nothing in the New Testament was opposed to the ordination of women as priests, this might have something to do with the fact that there’s very little in the New Testament explicitly pointing to the ordination of anybody as priests!
We take ‘elder’ as a synonym for priest, with the English word ‘priest’ seemingly deriving from presbyteros, the Greek for ‘elder’, but things really aren’t that clear, the priesthood really being first discernible as a clear and distinct phenomenon in the writings of the disciples of those disciples we know as the Apostolic Fathers. In any case, seemingly this happened in 1976, with the commission voting 12-5 against the notion that scripture alone excluded women from the priesthood, and unanimously agreeing that this wasn’t an issue that could be decided either way on the basis of scripture alone.
Raising the spectre of what he sees as a rising threat to the kind of Biblical scholarship Vatican II envisaged, Jerome challenges the still-extant ‘groundswell of opposition to the critical treatment of the New Testament’ that has criticised the likes of Raymond E. Brown and done so with impunity, with hierarchies around the world allowing this to happen, because, he says, ‘they know perfectly well’ that if they responded to misguided criticism, ‘they would not be backed up by Rome’.
Given how he had testified to Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI promoting, defending, and using the historico-critical method, this seems an absurd charge, even, as I thought on first reading, a paranoid one.
It is peculiar that in criticising these critics, Jerome scorns them for not having ‘the tools, the training, or the mental agility’ to practice the kind of exegesis Dei Verbum had made ‘mandatory for Catholics’, and for lacking the ‘humility’ to stay silent in the face of experts such as himself.
One might wonder whether the Church actually made mandatory a kind of exegesis beyond most Catholics, or whether it had intended to promote a professional exegetical caste, or what Jerome means by describing as ‘mandatory’ the kind of exegesis outlined by Dei Verbum, when he himself seems only interested in one aspect of said exegesis. If it is true that these critics of historical criticism have gone ‘against the teaching of the Church’, then it looks to me as though they are but one side of the coin of casual and surely well-intentioned dissent, the other being represented by Jerome himself.
Of course, by saying that it could be said that I have fallen in among those ‘Catholics who impugn the integrity of critical scholars’, and perhaps this is true to some degree, though I hope not, but it seems to me that Dei Verbum requires a holistic reading of the Bible, wherein our eyes should be directed to both the human and the divine roots of the texts; if some scholars insist on reading the New Testament in one monocular fashion, it should hardly surprise them that they should draw the fury of an equally monocular mob.
It certainly seems perverse to liken their criticisms to clergy preaching abortion or gay marriage; it is one thing to criticise partially Catholic scholarship on partially Catholic grounds, but another thing entirely to use the pulpit as a platform to attack straightforward applications of Catholic morality. ‘Ignorant underground criticism of biblical scholars’ may well pose a danger to the health of the Church, but one might wonder whether scholarship that pays little heed to core principles of Catholic exegesis is significantly better.