Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Remarks on the 100thAnniversary of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome

Lawrence Boadt, C.S.P.


As a proud graduate of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, I am honored to have been asked by Kent Richards and the International SBL Planning Committee to participate in this wonderful event. I received a Licentiate in Scripture Studies in 1974 and a Doctorate in 1976, and they have served me very well over the intervening thirty-five years. I also want to take this occasion to salute the current faculty and staff, who have not only kept up the spirit and the standards I remember from the 1970s, but also to thank very personally all those who taught me in this wonderful university during my three years here in Rome. Almost all have by now gone on to their heavenly reward, but as with all dedicated and spirited professors, their learning, wit, and insights live on and are deeply part of my own approach to the Scriptures and revealed in whatever small contributions I have been able to make along the years. Finally, I want to thank in a very special way Father Maurice Gilbert and his history of the Institute. It was a historical goldmine without losing any of the drama of a hundred years of anything but quiet academic life.

It seemed most appropriate for me to reflect this evening on two aspects of the Institute. The first is why the Biblical Institute has been so central and important to the Catholic Church as Catholic scholars have taken their places in biblical studies over the last century. The second is a number of observations on my own experience as a student at the Biblicum, a viewpoint I believe none of our other speakers will give this evening.

The Critical Idea of a Roman Center of Biblical Studies

The Biblical Institute originated in a dream that Catholic scholarship could use a first-class intellectual and academic biblical resource that would include both a major library and a top-quality faculty. The idea was born under Pope Leo XIII as early as 1893 as biblical studies throughout the Protestant world, in particular, was being recognized as first-class scholarship and was making breakthroughs in historical recovery of the biblical text, the wealth of ancient Near Eastern literature, and the sociological and anthropological world of ancient civilizations, including that of ancient Israel and Roman Palestine. Catholics had had almost no contributions to make to this wave of new discovery. Leo XIII and those around him realized that a renaissance in Catholic intellectual tradition was needed, and he not only mandated a recovery of Thomistic theology but through his encyclical Providentissimus Deus of 1893 encouraged professional biblical studies in a church where it had never had any independent standing before and dreamed of training competent scholars and teachers for the entire Catholic world. This was an important intellectual breakthrough in Catholic official thinking, and if it had proceeded as dreamed, Catholic scholarship might have found itself in the early twentieth century where it came to be by 1960. But it was not to be.

A Stormy Life under Modernism

Leo’s hopes took sixteen more years to materialize under his successor, Pope Pius X, and this was a fiery period of conflict in the Catholic Church over the question of modernism, in which the traditionalists saw the impact of historical-critical methods as destroying the supernatural foundations of faith in an inerrant Bible. The most radical rejection of modern learning culminated in 1907 with two decrees of Pius X that forbade seminaries and Catholic-affiliated universities and schools from any association with such historical-critical methodologies. Oaths were forced on priests and professors to reject modernism as the Pope had defined it; professors were let go, and a general stagnation in theology began that lasted well into the 1940s. Even respected and famed Catholic linguists and biblical scholars were put under suspicion and could never write fully freely as scholars again. In a recent article, William Portier of Dayton University has completed a study of the devastating effects of modernist condemnations on a newly blooming fraternity of American theologians and Biblicists (forthcoming in Divided Friends: Portraits of the Roman Catholic Modern Crisis in the United States). Four leading young Catholic priest-thinkers were all silenced and forced out of their fields of scholarship. Two left the Catholic Church in anger, and two went into quiet conformity. But Catholic theological reflection on the public level in America was thoroughly flattened.

Father Gilbert brings out well the conflicts between conservatives who wanted the Biblical Institute to be founded to hold the line on the tradition and those who saw the opportunities for a Catholic scholarship that could cooperate with or challenge the best of the secular and Protestant worlds. Ironically, the most influential founder of the Biblical Institute, Leopold Fonck, S.J., leaned to the traditionalist camp but never lost sight of the aim of quality and professionalism that a school would have to maintain. While the Pope gave rein to the Pontifical Biblical Commission as the official voice for Catholic biblical scholarship, and it issued ever more draconian statements insisting on literal readings of texts, the Biblical Institute came into being, with a top-grade faculty in areas of linguistics, ancient texts, and exegesis and set about their business of building the best biblical center in the world. Father Fonck and the Vatican did understand the Institute as a bulwark against modernism, but, fortunately, it stayed clear of the major battles like those that embroiled Father LaGrange, O.P., of the École Biblique. Remarkably, as the history and documents show, it barely acknowledged in its program the fears and concerns of the antimodernists. But behind the scenes, the correspondence between curia officials and the Jesuits who were to staff this new Institute show how lively was the Byzantine courtly dance of politics within the Vatican. Perhaps it is a tribute to the intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church that, in the end, scholarship was worth establishing officially even when suspected of opposition to current church thinking.

The Institute limped along in World War I as might be expected, but afterwards, still blocked throughout the 1920s and 1930s from doing much modern exegesis in dialogue with other non-Catholic biblical colleagues, it concentrated on research and study of ancient languages. A second full faculty in Oriental languages was established, and through scholars such as Anton Deimal great strides were made in understanding Sumerian, for example. Paul Jouon’s remarkable Grammar of Biblical Hebrew has been a lifelong companion because it really does recognize the historical nature of biblical Hebrew usage. Work on the Latin Vulgate, examination of Greek papyri, and production of linguistic resources flourished. This twenty years saw the final victory of the Institute as an independent academic center when it got the right to confer doctorates in 1928, and the Pontifical Biblical Commission finally took a back seat and the constant flow of antimodern criticism ceased. In 1927, the Institute opened a Jerusalem campus, which has widened the areas of research to archaeology and geography and more opportunities for cooperation with other institutions in the Holy Land, a development that was limited then but would blossom in the 1980s and 1990s, with cooperative arrangements with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the École Biblique, the premier Dominican school of biblical studies, and the Catholic Biblical Association of America.

Coming of Age

The heavy shadow of the antimodernist movement was gradually lifted under Pope Pius XI, who personally encouraged greater scholarly openness throughout his papacy in the 1920s and 1930s. His attitude climaxed in the encyclical letter of his friend and successor, Pope Pius XII, in 1943, Divino afflante Spiritu, which called Catholic biblical scholars to a deeper and more historical-critical biblical studies. Free to do modern exegesis as well as language proficiency, a new generation of graduates began to change the whole educational process at the graduate level throughout Catholic seminaries and universities in Europe and America and, gradually after the Second Vatican Council, to the rest of the world. Even the Vatican Council was still a battleground in which traditionalists tried to prevent such developments. Many older Catholic scholars remember the efforts of Cardinal Ottaviani of the Holy Office to dismiss Professors Max Zerwick and Stanislaus Lyonnet, two distinguished New Testament scholars, on trumped-up charges of rejecting the original historical bases to New Testament accounts. With the appointment of Agustin Bea to Cardinal and a peritus at the Council did the new critical approach find its way into the very fabric of the Council documents once and for all. Especially Pope Paul VI supported the new biblical approach and blocked all attempts to undo the new gains.

Its Significance for the Roman Catholic Church

I have noted so many key moments from the early history of the Biblical Institute because it is hard for those who grow up in the American or European university systems to imagine the tension that always stands at the heart of Catholic exegesis. The need to both seek truth and knowledge goes back to Christianity’s earliest years, fueled by the historical event of Jesus as divine revelation. The Catholic Church guarded and nourished intellectual movements through fifteen hundred years. But at the same time, exegesis and Scripture are crucial to the daily life of the liturgy and worship and doctrinal concerns of the Church. Thus Catholic biblical scholars are constantly struggling to serve the best criteria of research alongside efforts to make the Bible a living word of God to believers. The statistics of who have graduated from the Biblical Institute in its one hundred years indicate this unusual role as both scholarly and pastoral inspiration for the whole Catholic World. There have been 7,194 students who have followed programs in that time, and of these 4,784 have received Master’s Level Licentiates and 340 the doctorate. They come from all five continents, although the majority have come from the western European and North American academic world. But note that before the Vatican Council, only 21 students from the continent of Africa received degrees, but since 1965 there have been over 445 African graduates; from Asia 82 before the Council, 687 since; from Latin America 138 before the Council, 376 since. This has made the Roman school the center for developing local intellectual leaders in the Bible throughout parts of the world where Roman Catholics had few if any universities or centers of Catholic learning. They are now spread widely, and although they do not have a mission of “converting” local culture and contextual use of the scriptures, they provide a cadre of scholars training in critical method and who bring a broader and more ecumenical understanding to their scholarship, which has made them competent and vital partners in the academy. One need only look at the lively journal literature and biblical scholarship in India to see how this influence has joined Indian scholars in the dialogue with their Western counterparts.

My Experience of the Biblical Institute

I was trained in the seminary at St. Paul’s College and Catholic University in Washington, D.C., under a new generation of Catholic professors who had come back from the Biblical Institute as the first generation of those trained in light of the new directions of Divino afflante Spiritu. They included Barnabas Ahern, Neil McEleney, Phil King, and Tom Barrosse. In Semitics at Catholic University I was trained partly by a new generation of linguistically trained Institute graduates such as Alex DiLella and Aloysius Fitzgerald (not to mention an older but very committed generation such as Louis Hartman and Pat Skehan). I arrived in Rome as a graduate of Catholic University of America’s theology school and Semitics language departments in 1971. I stayed there through 1974 and was officially awarded the Doctorate in 1976. They were wonderful years because the Council had just ended and the school was alive with growth and enthusiasm.

To the horror of Msgr. Skehan, I became the disciple of Mitchell Dahood in biblical studies and Ugaritic languages because my background with a master’s in Semitic languages allowed me to skip most of the basic course requirements and go directly to advanced study. I had classmates who went on to make major contributions across the world: H. van Dijk in Europe; Tony Ceresko in India; Bill Irwin in Canada; John Meier in the United States. Most of us published our dissertation in the learned series of the Biblical Institute itself, the Analecta biblica or Biblia et orientalia. But many colleagues were studying in American university programs such as John Hopkins under William Albright or at Harvard under George Ernest Wright or in Europe in German and Dutch universities and publishing in the BZAW, HSM, or the SBLDS. It was a time of flowering, and we felt, particularly under Dahood, to be part of a movement that incorporated historical, archaeological, linguistic, and exegetical skills together and that was shared by our colleagues in all these varied centers.

I did my doctoral dissertation on Ugaritic linguistic parallels to the language of the oracles against nations, especially in Ezekiel’s oracles against Egypt in chapters 29–32. To show how free the scholarly atmosphere had become once the former modernist shadow had passed, I have an embarrassing story of my own study. When I had completed all requirements before undertaking the dissertation, one had to pass a public lecture before the faculty, the topic of which was assigned twenty-four hours in advance. They assigned me the exegesis of Ezekiel 37:1–14, the famous passage of the dead bones that come to life. In view of my work with Dahood, I saw a magnificent theological and dramatic development within the passage culminating in God’s personal promise to bestow his very own spirit on this people. I was quite pleased with how it held together, but when I had finished delivering the talk, the primary questioner, Father Ernest Vogt, passed because I had failed to do what was asked of me, a purely exegetical presentation. Mitch Dahood, the director and second questioner, asked a couple of desultory questions and stopped, while the third examiner basically passed, under the circumstances, so that no one knew what to do. The chair, Carlo Martini, suggested I go home, and they would inform me of their decision later. Dismayed, I waited for several hours by the phone until the call came and they announced I had passed. I discovered I had gotten into the middle of a violent dispute among the faculty themselves around whether Dahood’s approach to the linguistic and textual accuracy was acceptable in place of traditional exegesis of the theological meaning and tradition of the reading of the text. I figured Vogt voted 0, Dahood and Remi Lack voted 100 each, and it came out with my passing—probably just barely, but I never asked!

Working with Father Dahood was also validation of going past the nineteenth-century historical-critical methods and the concentration on sources and older forms and embracing the opening to literary, rhetorical dimensions of the text. All graduates who worked under Dahood have become dedicated rhetorical and literary critics in reading the text. And yet not as Mitch himself did, often seeking meaning in extralinguistic parallels but instead doing wholistic reading of the text as message and literature.

One regret I had was that so few of us were at the doctoral level at the very time the lower licentiate program was opening up to hopeful young scholars from the Third World. I had very little interaction with these students who are now professors throughout the Third World. But Dahood’s insistence on careful analysis of every grammatical aspect of words and texts and learning how to use comparative linguistics, as well as the lure of the 100,000-plus volumes of the library, left us little time to interact the way I now wish I had.


As a highly centralized church, Roman Catholicism focuses much of its attention on its doctrinal concerns, and much of the authoritative weight is centered in the Vatican in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, so the very existence of a first-class biblical university, linked closely to that Congregation, has provided an important balance that has emphasized the vital importance of the Bible in the dialogue of faith. May it continue to prosper ad multos annos.


© 2021, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.