Position of Christian Authors With Regard to Scientific Error in The Biblical Texts
A Critical Examination
One is struck by the diverse nature of Christian commentators’ reactions to the existence of these accumulated errors, improbabilities and contradictions. Certain commentators acknowledge some of them and do not hesitate in their work to tackle thorny problems. Others pass lightly over unacceptable statements and insist on defending the text word for word. The latter try to convince people by apologetic declarations, heavily reinforced by arguments which are often unexpected, in the hope that what is logically unacceptable will be forgotten.
In the Introduction to his translation of Genesis, Father de Vaux acknowledges the existence of critical arguments and even expands upon their cogency. Nevertheless, for him the objective reconstitution of past events has little interest. As he writes in his notes, the fact that the Bible resumes
“the memory of one or two disastrous floods of the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, enlarged by tradition until they took on the dimensions of a universal cataclysm”
is neither here nor there;
“the essential thing is, however, that the sacred author has infused into this memory eternal teachings on the justice and mercy of God toward the malice of man and the salvation of the righteous.”
In this way justification is found for the transformation of a popular legend into an event of divine proportions-and it is as such that it is thought fit to present the legend to men’s faith-following the principle that an author has made use of it to illustrate religious teachings. An apologetic position of this kind justifies all the liberties taken in the composition of writings which are supposed to be sacred and to contain the word of God. If one acknowledges such human interference in what is divine, all the human manipulations of the Biblical texts will be accounted for. If there are theological intentions, all manipulations become legitimate; so that those of the ‘Sacerdotal’ authors of the Sixth century are justified, including their legalist preoccupations that turned into the whimsical descriptions we have already seen.
A large number of Christian commentators have found it more ingenious to explain errors, improbabilities and contradictions in Biblical descriptions by using the excuse that the Biblical authors were expressing ideas in accordance with the social factors of a different culture or mentality. From this arose the definition of respective ‘literary genres’ which was introduced into the subtle dialectics of commentators, so that it accounts for all difficulties. Any contradictions there are between two texts are then explained by the difference in the way each author expressed ideas in his own particular ‘literary genre’. This argument is not, of course, acknowledged by everybody because it lacks gravity. It has not entirely fallen into disuse today however, and we shall see in the New Testament its extravagant use as an attempt to explain blatant contradictions in the Gospels.
Another way of making acceptable what would be rejected by logic when applied to a litigious text, is to surround the text in question with apologetical considerations. The reader’s attention is distracted from the crucial problem of the truth of the text itself and deflected towards other problems.
Cardinal Daniélou’s reflections on the Flood follow this mode of expression. They appear in the review Living God (Dieu Vivant) under the title: ‘Flood, Baptism, Judgment’, (Deluge, Baptème, Jugement’) where he writes “The oldest tradition of the Church has seen in the theology of the Flood an image of Christ and the Church”. It is “an episode of great significance” . . . “a judgment striking the whole human race.” Having quoted from Origen in his Homilies on Ezekiel, he talks of ‘”the shipwreck of the entire universe saved in the Ark”, Cardinal Daniélou dwells upon the value of the number eight “expressing the number of people that were saved in the Ark (Noah and his wife, his three sons and their wives)”. He turns to his own use Justin’s writings in his Dialogue. “They represent the symbol of the eighth day when Christ rose from the dead” and “Noah, the first born of a new creation, is an image of Christ who was to do in reality what Noah had prefigured.” He continues the comparison between Noah on the one hand, who was saved by the ark made of wood and the water that made it float (“water of the Flood from which a new humanity was born”), and on the other, the cross made of wood. He stresses the value of this symbolism and concludes by underlining the “spiritual and doctrinal wealth of the sacrament of the Flood” (sic).
There is much that one could say about such apologetical comparisons. We should always remember that they are commentaries on an event that it is not possible to defend as reality, either on a universal scale or in terms of the time in which the Bible places it. With a commentary such as Cardinal Daniélou’s we are back in the Middle Ages, where the text had to be accepted as it was and any discussion, other than conformist, was off the point.
It is nevertheless reassuring to find that prior to that age of imposed obscurantism, highly logical attitudes were adopted. One might mention those of Saint Augustine which proceed from his thought, that was singularly advanced for the age he lived in. At the time of the Fathers of the Church, there must have been problems of textual criticism because Saint Augustine raises them in his letter No. 82. The most typical of them is the following passage:
“It is solely to those books of Scripture which are called ‘canonic‘ that I have learned to grant such attention and respect that I firmly believe that their authors have made no errors in writing them. When I encounter in these books a statement which seems to contradict reality, I am in no doubt that either the text (of my copy) is faulty, or that the translator has not been faithful to the original, or that my understanding is deficient.”
It was inconceivable to Saint Augustine that a sacred text might contain an error. Saint Augustine defined very clearly the dogma of infallibility when, confronted with a passage that seemed to contradict the truth, he thought of looking for its cause, without excluding the hypothesis of a human fault. This is the attitude of a believer with a critical outlook. In Saint Augustine’s day, there was no possibility of a confrontation between the Biblical text and science. An open-mindedness akin to his would today eliminate a lot of the difficulties raised by the confrontation of certain Biblical texts with scientific knowledge.
Present-day specialists, on the contrary, go to great trouble to defend the Biblical text from any accusation of error. In his introduction to Genesis, Father de Vaux explains the reasons compelling him to defend the text at all costs, even if, quite obviously, it is historically or scientifically unacceptable. He asks us not to view Biblical history “according to the rules of historical study observed by people today”, as if the existence of several different ways of writing history was possible. History, when it is told in an inaccurate fashion, (as anyone will admit), becomes a historical novel. Here however, it does not have to comply with the standards established by our conceptions. The Biblical commentator rejects any verification of Biblical descriptions through geology, paleontology or pre-historical data. “The Bible is not answerable to any of these disciplines, and were one to confront it with the data obtained from these sciences, it would only lead to an unreal opposition or an artificial concordance.” One might point out that these reflections are made on what, in Genesis, is in no way in harmony with modern scientific data-in this case the first eleven chapters. When however, in the present day, a few descriptions have been perfectly verified, in this case certain episodes from the time of the patriarchs, the author does not fail to support the truth of the Bible with modern knowledge. “The doubt cast upon these descriptions should yield to the favorable witness that history and eastern archaeology bear them.” In other words. if science is useful in confirming the Biblical description, it is invoked, but if it invalidates the latter, reference to it is not permitted.
To reconcile the irreconcilable, i.e. the theory of the truth of the Bible with the inaccurate nature of certain facts reported in the descriptions in the Old Testament, modern theologians have applied their efforts to a revision of the classical concepts of truth. It lies outside the scope of this book to give a detailed expose of the subtle ideas that are developed at length in works dealing with the truth of the Bible; such as O. Loretz’s work (1972) What is the Truth of the Bible? (Quelle est la Vérité de la Bible?). This judgment concerning science will have to suffice:
The author remarks that the Second Vatican Council
“has avoided providing rules to distinguish between error and truth in the Bible. Basic considerations show that this is impossible, because the Church cannot determine the truth or otherwise of scientific methods in such a way as to decide in principle and on a general level the question of the truth of the Scriptures”.
It is obvious that the Church is not in a position to make a pronouncement on the value of scientific ‘method’ as a means of access to knowledge. The point here is quite different. It is not a question of theories, but of firmly established facts. In our day and age, it is not necessary to be highly learned to know that the world was not created thirty-seven or thirty-eight centuries ago. We know that man did not appear then and that the Biblical genealogies on which this estimate is based have been proven wrong beyond any shadow of a doubt. The author quoted here must be aware of this. His statements on science are only aimed at side-stepping the issue so that he does not have to deal with it the way he ought to.
The reminder of all these different attitudes adopted by Christian authors when confronted with the scientific errors of Biblical texts is a good illustration of the uneasiness they engender. It recalls the impossibility of defining a logical position other than by recognizing their human origins and the impossibility of acknowledging that they form part of a Revelation.
The uneasiness prevalent in Christian circles concerning the Revelation became clear at the Second Vatican Council (19621965) where it took no less than five drafts before there was any agreement on the final text, after three years of discussions. It was only then that “this painful situation threatening to engulf the Council” came to an end, to use His Grace Weber’s expression in his introduction to the Conciliar Document No. 4 on the Revelation.
Two sentences in this document concerning the Old Testament (chap IV, page 53) describe the imperfections and obsolescence of certain texts in a way that cannot be contested:
“In view of the human situation prevailing before Christ’s foundation of salvation, the Books of the Old Testament enable everybody to know who is God and who is man, and also the way in which God, in his justice and mercy, behaves towards men. These books, even though they contain material which is imperfect and obsolete, nevertheless bear witness to truly divine teachings.”
There is no better statement than the use of the adjectives ‘imperfect’ and ‘obsolete’ applied to certain texts, to indicate that the latter are open to criticism and might even be abandoned; the principle is very clearly acknowledged.
This text forms part of a general declaration which was definitively ratified by 2,344 votes to 6; nevertheless, one might question this almost total unanimity. In actual fact, in the commentaries of the official document signed by His Grace Weber, there is one phrase in particular which obviously corrects the solemn affirmation of the council on the obsolescence of certain texts:
‘”Certain books of the Jewish Bible have a temporary application and have something imperfect in them.”
‘Obsolete’, the expression used in the official declaration, is hardly a synonym for ‘temporary application’, to use the commentator’s phrase. As for the epithet ‘Jewish’ which the latter curiously adds, it suggests that the conciliar text only criticized the version in Hebrew. This is not at all the case. It is indeed the Christian Old Testament alone that, at the Council, was the object of a judgment concerning the imperfection and obsolescence of certain parts.
Borrowed from The Bible, The Qur’an and Science by Dr. Maurice Bucaille