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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive One Hundred Years of the Pontifical Biblical Institute

James Kugel

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 Babylonian Talmud; indeed, I once saw a French summary of an English article that spoke pejoratively of a certain book’s complicated argument, which it described at one point as talmudic; the French summary said: raisonnementjésuite.

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 sane 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 orientaliaseries 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 Schökel; 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 Dubovsky—great young scholars all.)

If I may take myself as a rather typical example, I have not 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 Schökel’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 (Qoheleth) 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: 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 do not 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 do not 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 “premodern”) 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 even before the precise boundaries of Scripture had been determined; it is 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 premodern 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 B.C.E., 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.

 
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