The impact of the historicity debates over the biblical narratives upon 20th-century American Catholic biblical scholarship

Patrick Joseph Russell, Marquette University


The history of American Catholic biblical scholarship is all but ignored, with only Gerald P. Fogarty's American Catholic Biblical Scholarship (1989) devoted to this subject. Most scholars assume that American Catholic exegesis was mired in an ahistorical, anti-critical mode prior to Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), a papal encyclical which is called the "Magna Carta" of biblical scholarship because it encouraged the use of historical criticism. Further, it is supposed that the little exegesis which did appear was simply a derivative of European Catholic scholarship. Thus American Catholic biblical scholarship is seen as having little history worth recounting before Divino. This study argues that an in-depth engagement with the actual exegesis of American Catholic New Testament scholarship prior to Divino demonstrates that the above is a caricature. Instead, American Catholic NT scholarship was pluralistic and critical in this period. Using a publication proliferation scale as the basis for selecting the exegetes studied, it is shown that three separate approaches existed in American Catholic NT scholarship. These three approaches exhibit distinct alignments of various methodological, exegetical, and theological elements and can be classified as paradigms. These three paradigms correlate with specific social strategies adopted by Catholics as they confronted an environment dominated by Protestantism. American Catholic NT exegesis was heavily apologetical in reaction to Protestant scholarship, but it was not anti-critical. American Catholic NT scholarship, in particular, rejected the common Protestant understandings of the Kingdom of God as an eschatological or moral reality. Instead, American Catholic exegetes pictured Jesus' fundamental work as the founding of an institution--the Church--which would continue his soteriological function. They especially explained Jesus' parables on the kingdom as ecclesiological teaching. Jesus' mission and message was fundamentally ecclesiological in the American Catholic frame of reference. Drawing heavily upon the agricultural images in the parables, this interpretation saw the Kingdom--and therefore of the Church--as an organic, unfolding institution. This reading necessitated the embrace of a developmental model of history. In this way, American Catholic NT scholarship was prepared for the directions outlined by Divino, as well as found a means by which to engage modern Protestant exegesis without abandoning core Catholic convictions.

Recommended Citation

Russell, Patrick Joseph, "The impact of the historicity debates over the biblical narratives upon 20th-century American Catholic biblical scholarship" (1996). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9719095.