Deciphering the Big Book

The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke

by Raymond E. Brown
Doubleday, 594 pp., $12.50

A Palpable God: Thirty Stories Translated from the Bible with an Essay on the Origins and Life of Narrative

by Reynolds Price
Atheneum, 195 pp., $8.95

There are vast libraries of Biblical scholarship, and they are in the present age expanding at least as fast as ever before; but it does not appear that they are much frequented by the general reader. If he is a nonbeliever he is likely to think it none of his business; if a believer he tends to leave all this to his pastors and to buy and read books which obscure the interesting issues with a smokescreen of institutional piety, or, at best, attenuate and vulgarize them.

This is unfortunate, for it means that secular intellectuals are only vaguely aware of the achievements of a scholarly tradition which has, over two arduous centuries of inquiry, established criteria of exact research and bold speculation not often matched in the humanities, whose practitioners are likely to assume in priests and ministers an intellectual docility deriving from the nature of their commitment to a religion. This is presumably different from one’s own commitment to a professional discipline, which need not be the consequence of some prior doctrinal preference, and is less obviously associated with a pious social role. There is the additional difficulty that the learned clergy are learned in their own way, and speak their own language, so that it isn’t always easy for the otherwise-learned laity to know exactly what they are talking about.

So it comes about that while a student of the nineteenth century may be quite willing to agree that German Biblical criticism was one of the greatest achievements of that age, and a matter of some importance for our own, he is unlikely to pay much attention to the continuation of the tradition. It may be true that the greatest days are over, for we can never again have the sense that this kind of scholarly inquiry is undermining the foundations of a culture as well as those of a traditional faith. It may also be true that subsequent criticism has been affected by a desire to save the faith; for much of it benefits by a more sophisticated hermeneutics designed to permit the prosecution of “scientific” research without disturbing belief in the ultimate truth and even, in some extremely refined sense, the historicity of the Gospels. Yet the achievements of this later scholarship remain worthy of the consideration of all secular historians and critics.

Much of the finest work has been German and Protestant, and it is in Germany that the subtler philosophical accommodations have been made. Catholic scholars worked under severe inhibitions deriving from the interpretative authority of the institution and the impossibility of challenging dogma. A simple instance of the cramping effect on scholarship is the fact that until twenty or so years ago it was impermissible for a Catholic to argue from the position that Mark was prior to, and an important source of, Matthew—a position available to others for a century. (It is now under attack; few theories in this field can be said to have won permanent and universal assent.)…

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