THE NUMBER OF THOSE SAVED
7:13-14: If we compare this passage with the parallel in Luke 13:22-27,
Luke's version is much fuller, and includes a setting which makes clear
the question is about final salvation. In Matthew that seems to be the
case, but some have taken it to refer to entering the Church - speaking of
the difficulties it involved. Because Luke's version is fuller, we will
use it for our discussion. A person asks Jesus point-blank whether many or
few are saved. (Here the word saved means reaching final salvation - often
it means entering the Church)
It is important to know that that very question was much discussed among
the Jews at that time. We gather this clearly from some of their
intertestamental writings, that is, works that are not part of Scripture.
The Fourth Book of Ezra, according to the opinion of the editor of that
section, B. M. Metzger (In James H. Charlesworth, general editor, "The Old
Testament Pseudepigrapha," Doubleday, 1983) comes from late first century
A. D. In 8.1-3: "The Most High made the world for the sake of the many,
but the world to come for the sake of the few." In 8.14-16: "There are
more who perish than those who will be saved." This is the background of
the thought in 7:46: "It would have been better if the earth had not
produced Adam." The same thought occurs also in 2 Baruch 48. 42 (dated
between 1st and 2nd decades of second century, A. D.) and elsewhere.
These texts of course do not mean all rabbis held such ideas - there was
no central teaching authority in Judaism. But their gloomy remarks applied
to our race in general. As to the Jews, nearly all would be saved. So
"Talmud, Sanhedrin" 1.10 says: "All Israel has a part in the age to
come." It does list a few exceptions to that for the very worst kinds of
It is against this background that we must look at the passages in Luke
and probably also Matthew. First, is it inherently likely Jesus would
reveal the truth on the matter? Hardly. To say most are saved could lead
to laxity. To say most are lost could easily bring despair.
So, what He seems to mean is this: You people think you have it made
because Abraham is your Father. But you do not. Do not rest on that, get
going and work out your salvation.
Further, there were two Scriptural passages whose seeming sense led so
many Fathers to take pessimistic view. One is our present passage about
the narrow way, the other is that of the banquet in Mt. 22:1-14 and Luke
14:15-24. The version in Matthew ends with "Many are called but few are
chosen." Jesus seems to have in mind at last primarily the Jews, and not
all persons.--The word "many" almost certainly reflects Hebrew "rabbim,"
which means the all who are many. So it means all Jews were invited to the
messianic kingdom - few were entering. So the path is narrow.
The Fathers of the Church generally took that parable to refer to both
God's call to be part of the chosen People, and to refer to final
salvation. That was unfortunate, for the two are quite different. One can
be saved without formally entering the Church, and some who do formally
enter will not be saved.
Are we obliged to accept the Patristic interpretation? No, for there is no
sign they are passing on a teaching from the beginning. Rather, they are
on their own, and telescope two things that greatly need to be kept
distinct, as we said.
The old Congregation of the Index in more recent times condemned two
writings. One by P. Gravina, which held that by far the greater number are
saved, was condemned on May 22, 1772. However, some of his arguments were
foolish and he used apocryphal revelations. The general idea of the
greater number of persons saved was also held earlier by Venerable Joseph
of St. Benedict. As part of the process, 40 theologians were appointed to
examine his writings along with other doctors elsewhere. None objected to
his thesis. On the other hand, on July 30, 1708 a work under the pen name
of Amelincourt - actually it was written by Abbe Olivier Debors-Desdoires
- which held that most persons are lost, was condemned.
From these opposite condemnations and the approval of Venerable Joseph we
gather that the Church simply does not profess to know whether the saved
are few or many. This also confirms our judgment that even though so many
Fathers are pessimistic, their views do not derive from a tradition handed
down from the beginning, but from a misinterpretation especially of the
parable of the banquet.