PIUS XII 1939-1958

The Time of the Documents of the Pentateuch, and the Literary Genre of the Eleven First Chapters of Genesis *

[Letter of the Secretary of the Biblical Commission to Cardinal Suhard, Archbishop of Paris, January 16, 1948]


2302 Our Most Holy Father has decided to commit to the consideration of the Pontifical Biblical Commission two questions which were recently submitted to His Holiness on the sources of the Pentateuch and the historicity of the eleven first chapters of Genesis. These two questions, together with their doctrines and prayers, were examined most attentively by the Most Reverend Consultors and Most Eminent Cardinals assigned to the aforesaid Commission. At the end of their deliberations His Holiness has deigned to approve the response which follows, in audience on the 16th day of January, 1948, granted to the undersigned.


The Pontifical Biblical Commission with a joyful heart praises the sense of filial confidence which inspired this consultation, and desires to respond to it in a sincere effort to promote Biblical studies, since within the limits of the traditional doctrine of the Church the fullest freedom is granted them. This freedom is affirmed explicitly in the Encyclical, Divino afflante Spiritu, of the Supreme Pontiff, who is reigning gloriously, with these words: “The Catholic exegete, impelled by an active and strong love of his science, and sincerely devoted to Holy Mother Church, should by no means be kept from attacking difficult questions as yet unresolved, again and again, not only to refute what is raised in opposition by adversaries, but to strive also to find a solid explanation which is in faithful accord with the doctrine of the Church, namely with what has been taught about Sacred Scripture free of all errors, and also satisfies in due measure certain conclusions of the profane sciences.


But let all the other sons of the Church remember that the attempts of these strenuous workers in the vineyard of the Lord should be judged not only with an honest and just heart, but also with the highest charity; indeed, these men should beware of that zeal, which is by no means prudent, whereby it is thought that whatever is new, for this very reason should be attacked or brought into suspicion” [AAS 35 (1943), 319].


If anyone under the light of this commendation of the Supreme Pontiff should consider and interpret the three replies given officially by the Biblical Commission on the questions already mentioned, i.e., on the 23rd day of June, 1905, regarding the stories in the historical books of Sacred Scripture, which have only the appearance of history [n. 1980] on the 27th day of June, 1906, on the Mosaic authenticity of the Pentateuch [n. 1997-2000], on the 30th day of June 1909, on the historical character of the three first chapters of Genesis [n. 2121-2128], will concede that these responses are by no means opposed to the earlier and truly scientific examination of these questions, which was instituted according to the information obtained within the last forty years. Therefore, the Biblical Commission does not think that, at least for the present, new decrees on these questions should be issued.


As for what pertains to the composition of the Pentateuch, the Biblical Commission in the above mentioned decree of the 27th day of June, 1906, recognized that it could be affirmed that “Moses in the composition of his work had made use of sources, namely, written documents or oral tradition” [n. 1999], and that modifications and additions later than Moses can also be admitted [cf. n. 2000]. There is no one today who doubts the existence of these sources, or who does not admit the successive additions which are due to the social and religious conditions of later times, and which are evident also in the historical narrative. However, among non-Catholic exegetes today very different opinions are offered regarding the nature and number of these documents, and their identification and time. Authors are not lacking in various countries who, from purely critical and historical reasons, without any apologetic zeal, definitely reject the theories set forth up to now, and try to explain certain peculiarities of the composition of the Pentateuch not so much from the diversity of supposed sources as from the special psychology and peculiar method, more thoroughly known today, of thinking and speaking on the part of the ancient Orientals; or also from the literary genre which varies according to subject matter. Therefore, we urge Catholic scholars to examine these questions with open minds in the light of sane criticism, and according to the findings which other sciences interested in the subject have obtained. For such an examination will undoubtedly show how great a part and what a profound influence Moses had as author and legislator.


The question of the literary forms of the eleven first chapters of Genesis is more obscure and more complicated. These literary forms do not correspond exactly with any classical category, and are not to be judged according to Greco-Latin or modern literary forms. Hence the historicity of these chapters can neither be denied nor affirmed simply, without undue application to them of the norms of a literary form under which they cannot be classed. If, then, it is admitted that in these chapters history in the classic and modern sense is not found, it must also be confessed that modern science does not yet offer a positive solution to all the problems of these chapters. . . . If anyone should contend a priori that their narratives contain no history in the modern sense of the word, he would easily insinuate that these are in no sense of the word historical, although in fact they relate in simple and figurative words, which correspond to the capacity of men who are less erudite, fundamental truths with reference to the economy of health, and also describe in popular manner the origin of humankind and of an elect people. . . .


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