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SBL International Congress, Rome, June 30, 2009

Maurice Gilbert, S.J.

We are truly grateful to the Society of Biblical Literature for organizing its international congress in Rome, in order to celebrate with us the centenary of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, and I am deeply honored to have been invited to tell you something about the century of our history. Five or six years ago, I was requested by Stephen F. Pisano, our rector at that time, to write a book on that history. I did it for the two houses of our Institute, the main one being in Rome and its branch in Jerusalem. It was clear from the beginning that I had to write an honest historical report, I mean with material from our archives both in Rome and in Jerusalem. In my book, I publish for the first time eighty documents found in them. Three volumes appeared: the original in French and two translations, one in Italian and the other in English.[1]

Today I do not want to present a summary of my book but to sketch some facts that are more explicitly connected with our guests from the United States.[2] I will speak about the past, leaving the present time to the judgment of our successors. My paper is divided into three periods.

1. From 1909 to 1949. In 1903 Leo XIII wanted to create a biblical institute in Rome: its program was already accepted, but a lack of money and the death of the Pope delayed its implementation. This was realized when in February 1909 Leopold Fonck, a German Jesuit from the Gregorian University, proposed to Pius X to go ahead with a plan. On May 7, Pius X, with his letter Vinea electa, created the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.[3] Archbishop William H. O’Connell of Boston, later Cardinal, was the second benefactor; he had been rector of the North American College in Rome. It was only in February 1910 that his successor, Monsignor Thomas F. Kennedy, informed Father Fonck that the palazzo next to the North American College, Muti Papazzurri, was for sale. A month later, Pius X decided to buy it, and on July 1, 1910, it became the Pontifical Biblical Institute. After adaptation and building an Aula Magna and the library, the official inauguration took place on February 25, 1912.

But the academic activities had already started on November 1909 in another building not far from the Vatican. There were ten professors, all Jesuits, and 117 registered students, of whom were only forty seven full-time students, already Doctors in Theology. Only one was from the United States, the Redemptorist John B. Zeller, from Wisconsin, who concluded his curriculum with distinction in 1912. After him, arrived in 1912 Adrian Simon, from Ohio, and a year after, Paul Henry Schaffel, from Milwaukee. These first three American students, in fact, left no trail in exegesis. At that time, the Biblicum was not allowed to confer academic degrees: this was reserved to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, so that only in 1932 Paul Henry Schaffel officially received his License degree.

In the meantime, in 1913 John J. O’Rourke (1875–1958) arrived at the Institute as Professor of New Testament Greek and Exegesis. He was born in New York and studied the classics at Fordham University and later at Oxford. He was not a prolific writer: altogether, he published no more than about ten short papers, but this balanced and determined man became, eleven years after his arrival in Rome, rector of the Institute, truly a great rector (1924–1930).[4]

At the Biblicum, the main problem was an antimodernist trend given to exegesis, and this painful approach to the Bible had as a result that the exegesis offered by our predecessors was not too serious. Even Augustin Bea, rector after Father O’Rourke until 1949, avoided any attempt of a more scientific exegesis. The only fields in which the Institute made a valid contribution were philology, history of exegesis, and bibliography. The main works in these fields appeared during the 1920s and 1930s. Let me mention first of all the Grammar of Biblical Hebrew written by Paul Joüon in 1923, revised and translated into English by Takamitsu Muraoka in recent years.[5] In 1925, Anton Deimel started his dictionary of the Sumerian language. In 1931, Franz Zorell published a revised edition of his Latin dictionary of New Testament Greek. Augustinus Merk published his critical edition of the New Testament in Greek and Latin in 1933; finally, in 1940 Zorell published the first fascicule of his Latin dictionary of Old Testament Hebrew.

Among the American students of that period, it is right to recall some well-known figures. Michael Gruenthaner, a Jesuit who later taught at Weston School of Theology, obtained his License degree in 1924. During the second half of the 1920s, arrivals at the Biblicum included: John E. Steinmueller, from Brooklyn, who later published, with Kathryn Sullivan, the Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia; Albert G. Meyer, who became Cardinal of Chicago; William L. Newton, from Cleveland, who was the first American doctor in biblical sciences from the Biblicum in 1932 and later the first president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America; Robert A. Dyson, an English Jesuit who emigrated to the States and became a brilliant professor of the Old Testament at the Biblicum from 1936 to 1958;[6] the Redemptorist Louis F. Hartman, who also obtained his License degree in Orientalism at our Institute and later was for twenty years secretary of the Catholic Biblical Association;[7] and John J. Collins, a Jesuit from Weston, who was the first editor of New Testament Abstracts.

Most of them studied at the Biblicum during the last years of O’Rourke’s rectorate and at the beginning of Bea’s. That short period, between 1927 and 1932, was one of the most fruitful in the history of the Institute. In 1927, the building of the Jerusalem branch opened. In 1928, Pius XI gave to the Biblicum the right to confer the doctorate in biblical sciences. New professors arrived: Merk in 1927 and four others in 1928: Giuseppe Messina; Alfred Pohl; Emile Suys; and Franz Zorell. In 1929, Urban Holzmeister. The same year, Alexis Mallon discovered Teleilat Ghassul and initiated the excavations of this important prehistorical site. In 1931, the periodical Orientalia was founded, and in 1932, the series Analecta orientalia was created. Finally, also in 1932 the Oriental Faculty was inaugurated at the suggestion of Pius XI.

A last note: in 1933, whereas in Germany the Nazis expelled Jewish scholars from universities, the Biblicum informed them that our periodicals were still open to them and, in 1934, started a teaching Jewish traditional texts in our Biblical Faculty.

2. From 1949 to 1969. During the 1940s the Vatican published three official documents about exegesis of the Bible, especially on the Old Testament.[8] The first one, from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, was an answer against some criticism diffused in Italy by a Neapolitan priest, Dolindo Ruotolo, who was supported by some bishops. Pius XI had already reacted publicly, supporting the research done at the Biblicum, but it was under Pius XII that the Vatican published the three documents that had a strong impact in the Catholic Church, because they definitively opened exegesis to scientific research. The antimodernist approach to the Bible was over. The second document was the encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu of 1943, and then, in 1948, another letter of the Pontifical Biblical Commission toCardinal Suhard of Paris on the interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis.

During these years, Bea was still rector of the Biblicum, and he played a part in the last documents. But in 1949, Ernst Vogt was appointed rector as his successor. Under his direction, the Institute made serious progress in scientific exegesis, using the new ways opened by Pius XII. During the 1950s, Stanislas Lyonnet wrote his best analyses of the letter of Paul to the Romans, but he was strongly criticized in 1960 by Francesco Spadafora.[9] Already in 1954 and 1957, Antonino Romeo accused Robert Dyson and Robert North, professors at the Biblicum, of being responsible for things in which, in fact, they had no part.

This kind of criticism against the Institute arose again during the first session of Vatican II by the same Romeo and Spadafora. The PBI answered, and also, in November 1962, Cardinal Bea spoke out: the question was Formgeschichte. In the council, the tension was so high that John XXIII took away the draft of De fontibus Revelationis, which had been refused by a majority of bishops. The day after, November 22, Norbert Lohfink defended his doctoral thesis on Deuteronomy 5–11 before many cardinals, bishops, and experts at the council. Cardinal Meyer was among them, and also Joseph Ratzinger. After these difficulties, a new text was on the way at the council, the dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum. In its number 12, a late addition was accepted: “Since sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written....” This addition had been proposed by the Biblicum, at the request of Brazilian bishops, and Ignace de la Potterie probably had inspired it.

In the meantime, the Holy Office obliged Lyonnet and Zerwick to stop teaching exegesis at the Biblicum. Reasons were never given. In any case, when Roderick A. F. MacKenzie became rector in 1963 after Vogt, he prepared the way to restore both Lyonnet and Zerwick in their position. He spoke with Cardinal Ottaviani and, in February 1964, with Paul VI himself, so that in May the two professors were allowed to teach exegesis again.

Among the professors and researchers at the PBI between 1949 and 1969, some famous Jesuits started their jobs. Robert North taught archaeology from 1951. Mitchell Dahood arrived in 1956: he taught Ugaritic in relation to Biblical Hebrew, and his commentary on Psalms appeared in three volumes in 1966, 1968, and 1970. Luis Alonso Schökel arrived as Professor of Old Testament Theology and Hermeneutics in 1957. William L. Moran taught exegesis of the Pentateuch from 1958 to 1966. Ignace de la Potterie started teaching on the Johannine corpus in 1961. Albert Vanhoye, created Cardinal in 2006, began his teaching on the Pauline letters, mainly the letter to the Hebrews, in 1963. The same year, Carlo Maria Martini, the future Cardinal of Milan, started his teaching of textual criticism, and from 1968 he participated in the committee that edited The Greek New Testament.[10]Also in 1963, James H. Swetnam created at the Biblicum the propaedeutic course of Greek. The name of Peter Nober must be mentioned: he was the redactor of the Elenchus bibliographicus Biblicus from 1949 to 1979.

With all of them, at the PBI, the quality of exegesis, both of the Old and the New Testaments made serious progress. In 1952, the series Analecta biblica was initiated, in which David M. Stanley, from Canada, in 1961, Dennis J. McCarthy, from Chicago, in 1963, Charles Homer Giblin, also from Chicago, in 1967, Aelred Cody, a Benedictine from Indiana, and Quentin Quesnell, from Wisconsin, in 1969, published their doctoral theses.

3. On and After 1969. In 1969, C. M. Martini became rector of the Institute and kept the job for nine years. Under his direction, the Biblicum democratically renewed its Statutes after those of 1934. One of the best accomplishments of Martini was without doubt the joint academic program established in 1974 with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: to date more than five hundred PBI students have taken part in this program. In 1984, the Institute made a similar agreement with the École Biblique of the Dominican Fathers in Jerusalem: such collaboration was the best way to repair the regrettable dispute between us and them at the beginning of the last century.

Between 1970 and 1985, new professors were engaged at the PBI, and many of them are still active, although some have already died. Let me mention D. J. McCarthy: he taught at the Institute from 1969 until his unexpected death at Salamanca in 1983, during the first Society of Biblical Literature International Congress; his main teaching and research was on the Pentateuch and the books of Samuel.[11] M. Dahood also suddenly died in a Roman church a year earlier: from 1975 he tried to see philological connections between Biblical Hebrew and Eblaite texts recently discovered, but we know today that he bound himself to a blind path; in any case, he was a impressive teacher and one of the more creative philologists of Biblical Hebrew. In 1974, M. Zerwick, with Mary D. Grosvenor, published the first edition of A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament, still used by many students all over the world![12]

From 1969 until this year, the Catholic Biblical Association of America sent to the PBI, for a full semester, a renowned biblical scholar. The first was Patrick W. Skehan, from the Catholic University of America, in Washington D.C., who taught on the Hebrew texts of Ben Sira (I was among his students). In 1973 and 1988, Raymond E. Brown also came to the Biblicum, and he was very successful, of course. Among the others, I only mention here George E. Mendenhall, who taught in 1985 on the historical theology of the Old Testament.

Among still-living colleagues who taught at the PBI during the last decades, I would mention A. Cody who taught, from 1968 to 1979, mainly on Genesis and on ancient cult in Israel. Richard I. Caplice, a Jesuit from New York, taught Akkadian from 1966 to 1989, and his grammar on it appeared in 1980; he also directed our periodical Orientalia for several years and was also dean of our Oriental Faculty from 1979 to 1987.

At the library of the Institute, I must note that Henry J. Bertels, also a Jesuit from New York, spent nineteen years as prefect of it: never had the Biblicum such a competent librarian for a so long time.

Finally, on the eve of the millennium, the Institute organized in 1999 a biblical congress for its ninetieth anniversary. Among the eleven lecturers were Joseph A. Fitzmyer and John P. Meier, both alumni of the PBI.[13]

These are the main events that happened at the Biblical Institute during its hundred-year history. Even if it sometimes made mistakes, we can acknowledge that our collaboration in biblical and Oriental sciences, in research and in teaching, was and still remains important.[14] American scholars, especially Jesuits, have made a very positive contribution to it.

* * *

[1]. Maurice Gilbert, L’Institut Biblique Pontifical: Un siècle d’histoire (1909–2009); translated into Italian by Carlo Valentino: Il Pontificio Istituto Biblico: Un secolo di storia (1909–2009) ; and into English by Leo Arnold: The Pontifical Biblical Institute: A Century of History (1909–2009) (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 2009).

[2]. See also Gerald P. Fogarty, American Catholic Biblical Scholarship: A History from Early Republic to Vatican II (SBL Confessional Perspective Series; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989).

[3]. English translation in Dennis J Murphy, ed., The Church and the Bible: Official Documents of the Catholic Church (New Delhi: Rekha Printers, 2000), 124–31.

[4]. Ernst Vogt, “In Memoriam Ioannis Iosephi O’Rourke S. J.,” Bib 39 (1958): 397–99.

[5]. A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew (SubBi 27; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 2006).

[6]. Francis J. McCool, “In Memoriam Robert A. Dyson S.J.,” Bib 41 (1960): 76–77.

[7]. See Peter F. Ellis, “For Forty Years,” CBQ 29 (1967): 307–11.

[8]. English translations in Dean P. Béchard, ed., The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official Catholic Teaching (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2002), 115–39, 212–24.

[9]. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “A Recent Roman Scriptural Controversy,” TS 22 (1961): 426–44, reprinted in his The Interpretation of Scripture: In Defense of the Historical-Critical Method (New York: Paulist, 2008), 17–36.

[10]. Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce Metzger, and Allen Wikgren, eds., The Greek New Testament (2nd ed. ; Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1968 ; 3rd ed., 1975.

[11]. See Dennis J. McCarthy, Institution and Narrative: Collected Essays (AnBib 108; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1985).

[12]. Vol. 1: Gospels–Acts (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1974); Vol. 2: Epistles–Apocalypse (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1979). Revised edition in one volume in 1981; third edition in 1988.

[13]. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “Melchizedek in the MT, LXX, and in the NT,” Bib 81 (2000): 63–69; John P. Meier, “The Present State of the ‘Third Quest’ for the Historical Jesus: Loss and Gain,” Bib 80 (1999): 459–87.

[14]. See Jean-Noël Aletti and Jean-Louis Ska, eds., Biblical Exegesis in Progress: Old and New Testament Essays (AnBib 176; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 2009).


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