George Weigel, Source Criticism and Biblical Scholars

In the criticism of George Weigel's intemperate and churlish source criticism of Pope Benedict XVI's new encyclical, criticism which is warranted, it has not been much noted that biblical scholars engage in source criticism on a regular basis. The same criticisms raised of Weigel's "gold pen" and "red pen" theory - that this is a means to choose what is "best," "original" and "authentic," as opposed to that which is "interpolated," added" or "not essential" and which may be rejected out of hand - can be raised with respect to biblical scholars. Biblical scholars often seek out sources, and this in itself is not problematic. Finding various sources in Matthew and Luke, for instance, can allow us to determine more precisely how these sources have been shaped and adapted for their various audiences. It is when some sources are preferenced as "early" and so more "authentic" than other sources, and more significant than the completed and received text as a whole that we run into problems. It is the final text of each of the biblical documents that the Church has received into the canon, and so the whole text commands our respect and attention. I recall reading Rudolf Bultmann's commentary on John and being shocked, honestly shocked, by his decision to determine what belonged in the "original" text of the Gospel, to such an extent that he simply did not deal with parts of the canonical text that he felt were later additions to the Gospel. Let it be said, too, that Bultmann was a superior scholar, an excellent exegete. The failings, to my mind, were based on a particular understanding of the role of the biblical scholar as an expert who knew the ancient texts better than the ancients themselves or the Church which considers the whole text the word of God. I have summed up such scholarly viewpoints in the little ditty below, which is sung to the tune of the Beverly Hillbillies Theme:

"Come and listen to a Gospel by an apostle named John,

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A poor disciple, barely kept his stories straight.

Then one day he was searchin' for a source,

And off of the shelf jumped the Logos prologue.

Cosmic, gold pen, soteriology.

Well the first thing you know ol' John's an author,

His disciples said, "John add that source here."

They said pre-existence is the place you got to be,

So he rewrote the text to reflect the Trinity.

Incarnation, they said,

Divine condescension, the Word made flesh."

My apologies to all of you, but I believe the point is a serious one. Biblical scholars can run headlong into the same trap into which Weigel has fallen. The expert, due to serious study, inside information, and genuine knowledge, can mistake these for a transcendence over the text. This hubris is tempting, because people ask us to explain texts, to make sense of them, to understand them. But no interpreter by virtue of training alone has access to the meaning of serious texts, revealed or otherwise. The text must be encountered, and as much as the interpreter "interprets" the text, the interpreter must be shaped by the text. Sometimes it is necessary for the interpreter to expand their horizons, to admit they are not up to the challenge until they are able to measure up to the text. Sometimes blind spots, biases and ideology must be removed. Generally, what is necessary is conversion, intellectual, moral or religious. This is why, I believe, Jesus pointed to the humble, the little ones, children, as privileged hearers of the word of God: 

"At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:1-4).

This is a hard lesson, which is necessary to learn hundreds of times, by experts on encyclicals and biblical texts. There was a reason Jesus chose fisherman to be his apostles and not biblical scholars, not to mention "Templeologists," who knew all the right high priests and high-ranking members of the Sanhedrin.

John W. Martens

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8 years 4 months ago
Many thanks to John Martens for this insightful response to George Weigel's piece in the National Review. Weigel seems to sell Pope Benedict's intellect short, treating him as some sort of authorial automaton who cuts and pastes to pander to diverse audiences. I think that Benedict knows exactly what he's doing-all persons across the political and theological spectrum of the Church can agree that he is a master of language. By using the vocabulary of Justice and Peace, he incorporates (or, he might say, incarnates) their position into his. ''Gratuitousness'' is not only the hinge of liberation theology, but becomes part of the Pope's vocabulary, and he can use the term on his own terms. It's a brilliant move on the part of the Pope. Isn't this one of the central purposes of the encyclical: to remind the faithful (on whatever ideological vantage point they may find themselves) that all works of charity and justice have their source in Truth? Thanks be to God that Truth incorporates (and celebrates) both the language of JPII and the language of Justice and Peace! I'm glad that God doesn't need red and gold markers.
8 years 2 months ago

What does the author want to say? If an expert discovers then it becomes an absolute truth! One cannot ignore it even a pontif (see Galatians 3, Paul contra Peter)

Of course bilical scholars have problem with St.Thomas "definition" of God as ipsum [email protected] the strict scientific: thomistic+logical (metalogical) semantic meaning of "being", "cause" and then, "God". Who cares? Catholic Cathehism, Fides et Ratio (JPII) calling for strict [email protected] tools to explain Bible; J.Lukasiewicz in 1928  called for strict reduction of all treatises acccording to strict absolute (therefoe, God's)logical [email protected] rules. Who cares? Middle Ages again (except St.Thomas).

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