The Unspoken Promise

Author: John Young


John Young

It is not biblical scholarship that leads to novel conclusions; it is the erroneous rejection of the supernatural.

The priest started homily by saying he had consulted some Scripture commentaries as part of his preparation. It was not a good beginning! I had heard him start like that on other occasions-and then wander into error. He is not a trendy, but where Scripture scholars are concerned he doesn't seem to know there's a war on.

A bit later he said: "Not every detail has to be accepted literally"; and that was ominous, for it was the Feast of the Epiphany, and he was talking about the coming of the wise men. As the homily proceeded the sowing of doubts continued, yet at no stage were we told which points might be non-literal. Rather the impression as left was that the account as a whole might be symbolical, and not a record of actual events.

Some sixty years had elapsed, we were assured, between the birth of Jesus and Matthew's writing of his Gospel, so accuracy would be difficult. Further, resemblances to Old Testament incidents suggest a symbolical construction in Matthew, with the aim of paralleling or echoing the Old Testament.

By the end of the homily one could reasonably gain the impression that for this priest, the Magi, the star, the Holy Innocents and the flight into Egypt were all fiction. And this from a priest who generally appears orthodox, and who, I am sure, sincerely wishes to be orthodox. Why, then, is he ready to countenance positions incompatible with the Church's understanding?

The fact of this incompatibility should be clear--as also in the rejection of the historicity of the other infancy narrative: that of Luke. The Church has always seen these as accounts of real events. The Church Fathers, the theologians and Scripture scholars, the faithful in general: with practically no exceptions until recent times, has maintained that these things really happened. This is clear from the liturgy too, as in the veneration of the Holy Innocents. To question the factuality of the angels' announcement of the birth of Christ to the shepherds, in Luke, or of Matthew's account of the star, the wise men, the slaughter of the children, the flight into Egypt: this is to question nearly two thousand years of Christian tradition. It is to show an outlook on these matters alien to that of the Church. It is against the Catholic conviction, as recalled by Vatican II, that the historicity of the Gospels is to be unhesitatingly affirmed.

The widespread doubts about the infancy narratives, doubts often expressed today by people who are a long way from being modernists, point to the extent of the confusion caused by the demythologizing Scripture scholars who exercise such enormous influence in the seminaries, in teacher training colleges and on the lecture circuit. So pervasive is their influence that their views tend to be accepted uncritically by numerous priests, religious and catechists; or when not accepted are often assumed to be at least probable. That his acquiescence is uncritical becomes clear when we look at the reasons given for the alleged "new insights." Take the reasons offered in the homily am speaking of.

One reason given for disputing the historicity of Matthew's account was the time gap, allegedly sixty years, between Jesus' birth and the composition of the Gospel. But a moment's reflection should show how silly this argument is. Firstly, it is not sixty years we are concerned with, but thirty odd years. For it is a question of when the account would have been established in the early Christian community, since owe that had happened there is no sound reason to suppose it would be distorted during the years before the Gospel was written.

J.B. Phillips remarks on "the fantastic retentiveness of the Oriental mind." He mentions a friend who worked for twenty-five years in Malaya, and found that "conversations of twenty years ago and more could be recalled perfectly, mistakes, faulty pronunciations and all...."

Just think of the sensation the coming of the Magi would have caused in Jerusalem. They wanted to know where the king of the Jews had been born-the one for whom the Jewish people had been waiting for centuries. Later on there occurred the appalling massacre of the innocent children, as Herod sought to kill the Messiah. Are we to believe that these events were forgotten in a generation? Did the chief priests and scribes forget how they had informed the king that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem? Did the people forget that "all Jerusalem" had been troubled at the astonishing news brought by the Magi? Did the parents and brothers and sisters of the murdered infants forget what had happened to them?

St. Luke tells us that "the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith." It would be incredible therefore if the events recorded by St. Matthew were not part of the oral tradition of the early Church from the beginning.

And what of Our Lady? Are we to suppose that she who pondered these things in her heart didn't tell the first Christians about her treasured memories of the events surrounding the infancy of Jesus?

The second reason offered by the homilist for doubting the historicity of Matthew's account was the resemblance between particulars in that account and incidents in the Old Testament. An example is the killing of the Jewish baby boys by Pharaoh, with Moses escaping the massacre and later saving his people. In Matthew the baby boys are killed by Herod, with Jesus escaping their fate and later saving us.

But to see this as an invention is to ignore the truth that God reveals his Revelation through deeds as well as words, and his providence has so ordered things that real events in the Old Covenant foreshadow real events in the New Covenant. The Church has always understood this, and one who doesn't accept it simply has not got the mind of the Church in this matter. Yet if one does accept it there is no basis for explaining the similarities by saying these Gospel incidents are inventions.

The striking thing about reasons given for denying the historicity of the infancy narratives, of which the two offered by the homilist are typical, is that they are so weak. Why, we might wonder, would intelligent people believe them? Why would scholars, some of them impressively erudite, do so? It is not as though we were dealing with a small minority of Scripture scholars; on the contrary, we are dealing with a large proportion, including some of the most influential.

One thing, I am convinced, underlies this phenomenon: a denial of the supernatural. Not that all who are taken in by demythologizing are deniers of the supernatural. But the influence of those who are, such as Bultmann, has so infected Scripture studies that it has become fashionable to question the historicity of anything which cannot be explained without invoking the supernatural.

Take the infancy narratives. Are they plausible if we disregard God's special intervention? Clearly they are not. There is no natural way in which it could be known, or even suspected, that a particular baby born in Bethlehem would, some thirty years later be acclaimed the Messiah. St. Luke tells us the shepherds learned the Messiah's identity from angels; and this precisely the kind of explanation that those who reject the supernatural will find incredible-and logically so.

In Matthew we have a marvelous star which leads the wise men to Jerusalem, and then shows them the house in Bethlehem. And why do they go to Bethlehem? Because the scribes told them the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem had been prophesied in Malachi-the supernatural again! Then they are given a divine warning about Herod.

If we subtract the supernatural from all this, the narratives disappear, including the slaughter of the Holy Innocents and the flight into Egypt. Herod would simply have had no reason to suppose a baby just born in Bethlehem would turn out to be the expected King of the Jews, and a supposed rival to himself.

The same presupposition operates, of course, in relation to the Gospels as a whole -and the Bible as a whole. Either a natural explanation has to be found for things apparently involving the supernatural, or the incidents have to be rejected. But Scripture is full of the supernatural; so the whole edifice collapses.

The influence of scholars who do not accept the supernatural is reinforced by peer pressure and by the danger of damaging one's career by opposing the "experts." It is also easier to get published if the current anti-supernatural line is followed-not least because it gives scope for a more sensational treatment, with "bolder insights" and "challenges to conservative thinking."

People such as the homilist I have been talking about then tend, sheep-like, to follow the prevailing fashions in scholarship. They don't follow them to their ultimate conclusions; they don't even suspect the ultimate conclusions; but they succeed in communicating a great deal of confusion to their audience.

It may seem a daunting task, even a rash task, to oppose an array of Scripture scholars with impressive credentials and a degree of erudition vastly superior to our own in their chosen field. But the perspective changes dramatically when we see the unspoken premise behind the demythologizing. It is not biblical scholarship that leads to the novel conclusion; it is a philosophical presupposition: the erroneous rejection of the supernatural.

The scholarship of these people is subservient to this error, and seeks to defend the indefensible. That is why their arguments against the historicity of so much in the Gospels are found, with a little common sense thought, to be weak arguments. Their conclusions, in this area, are not based on evidence, but on that fatal presupposition.

Once we grasp this, their authority no longer seems daunting. Rather we are like the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen's tale of The adults had been pressured into believing the Emperor was attired in splendid new clothes, and they were doing their best to see the clothes. Then the little child, viewing the scene with unprejudiced clarity, stated the simple truth: "He's got no clothes on."

Taken from the April 1995 issue of "Religious Life," published by the Institute on Religious Life, P.O. Box 41007, Chicago, IL 60641-0007. Subscriptions are $10.00 per year.