Lecture Notes: Reflections On Biblical Revisionism: R. Laurentin And The Infancy Narratives


Lecture Notes: Reflections on Biblical Revisionism: R. Laurentin and the Infancy Narratives

W. H. Marshner

Lecture Notes taken by W. H. Marshner on Raymond E. Brown
September 29, 1984

René Laurentin has written a long commentary on the infancy gospels. I will say in a moment why this has come to my attention.

In this century, Biblical criticism has won a large place for itself in Catholic scholarship. But now suddenly there is much talk about historical criticism as being barren, passe, wrong. This sudden revisionism is being hailed by many sorts of people (though not usually by scholars). When their different motives are examined, two types of revisionism emerge.

The first is revisionism for a fundamentalist aim, whether it be in the interest of Biblical teaching or in the interest of later Church dogma. For either of these types of fundamentalists, revisionism is an excuse to re-assert historically unconditioned formulations of doctrine. For these people, the underlying principle is this: God is eternally true, and we have His unconditionally true Revelation in the Bible and/or in Church doctrine. I accept this principle too, but I say that all the formulations of doctrine have been done in human words, hence subject to historical conditioning. So we need to distinguish the Revelation itself from its formulations.

The second type of revisionism is for hermeneutical purposes. Interested in the fruits of exegesis for the nourishment of Christian community, these people say that historical criticism produces barren results. They complain that the critics do not relate their research to the Church’s ongoing preaching and life. Some say that criticism misses the fact that the sacred text takes on a life of its own. Therefore they have turned to other approaches, including semiotic. I would counsel these people to take a less radical position. Some critics do address the religious dimensions in full. We are no longer like the rationalists of the 19th century. We try to see what the text meant religiously to those who wrote it and heard it. We recognize that the author’s theology must be put into dialogue with the hearer’s theology today. Moreover, historical criticism admits that it does not exhaust the meaning of the text; it gives only part of the picture– see my remarks in The Critical Sense. Fans of the new methodologies should learn a similar modesty. The following question must always remain the key one: “What was the biblical author trying consciously to communicate to his audience, and how did his audience understand it?”

Thus my defense of historical criticism is not un-nuanced. But Laurentin’s work is touted as exposing the very presuppositions of historical criticism. L has written on the exegesis of the infancy narratives before; in 1957 he wrote a good book dealing with the symbolism of the Blessed Virgin. A second book in 1961 was not so successful, because it crossed from matters of symbolism into matters of history. L presumed that Mary knew of Jesus’s divinity from the Annunciation forward. L contended that one must presume this, if one is to do justice to the dignity of the Mother of God. But I say that you can’t use this principle of giving due honor to Mary in an historical, exegetical book. In any case, thanks to these previous two books, I was looking forward to L’s new one. Then two things happen to pique my interest even further. I heard about George Kelly’s book, whose character is Summed up in a review by Jerome Murphy O’Connor (cites review). Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I saw that L wrote the foreword! Next, I got a phone call from the NC Register, asking me about an alleged plot to prevent the publication of L’s new book in this country. An article subsequently appeared in that paper, with quotes from various publishers indicating that they had a low evaluation of the book, and yet the hint of a plot was not altogether dropped by the writer.

Finally, then, this summer I got to read the book. I find in it both the types of revisionism mentioned above. (Cites the two subtitles) It contains 350 pp on exegesis and semiotics, 160 pp on historicity. Of the exegetical part, 293 pp are devoted to Lk, only 56 to Mt. This is because L’s interests are those of a Mariologist, and Mt’s account centers on Joseph. Moreover, L has done previous books on Lk, so he can repeat himself here. So Mariology explains the disproportionately large emphasis on Lk.

Besides this basic disproportion, L’s book is marked by a polemical character. He contends that scientific historical exegesis undermines the historical and religious value of the infancy narratives. L lives in a dualistic world. On the one side, there are the good authors who favor the historicity of these narratives and a high Mariology.

On the other side are those — formerly Protestants but now many Catholics as well— who reduce the gospel of Christmas to myth, who have accepted ideologies of rationalism, idealism, and positivism, who are guided by a systematic suspicion of the miraculous.

I have four reactions to this polemical dualism. (1) In my country, I have met few priests who, under the impact of historical criticism, have ceased to preach the Christmas story. As to the supposed deleterious effects of my Birth of the Messiah.

I have gotten many letters thanking me for providing new ideas of what to preach on.

  1. I wonder just who are all these Catholics who’ve taken up rationalism. If they are all the foremost exegetes, do they include me? Schnackenburg? Léon-Dufour? Fitzmyer? (Other names I didn’t catch) Does L have evidence that these men are rationalists? Positivists? I think it’s shocking to find such sweeping charges. (3) I don’t see any evidence of a suspicion against the miraculous. My problem about the historicity of the infancy narratives has nothing to do with that. More about this in a moment. (4) I was surprised to find L claiming that his 1957 work on Marian symbolism had ecumenical support. He cites a few names of people who agreed with him. But even among Catholics there were those who didn’t; Benoît and even McHugh criticized L’s ideas. He never mentions or answers their arguments. Moreover, there was a massive rejection of L’s ideas among the Germans. So L’s notion that there was an ecumenical consensus taking shape, before Catholic scholars turned to historical criticism and disrupted this convergence, is groundless. An example of genuine ecumenical convergence is Mary in the Gospel, but L never mentions it.

Now for more examples of L’s polemicism. Books he likes are called “exemplary,” “rigorous,” often with indications of how long they are, so we will think them weighty; but books he doesn’t like are slightingly referred to, as by putting the word ‘critical’ in quotes. Moreover, L is intent on exposing “presuppositions” — he often speaks of “systematic presuppositions,” “fragile presuppositions.” But look at his own massive presupposition: that Mary lived on in the Jerusalem community and therefore could have been the source of the information in the infancy narratives. The NT says nothing about this. There is no support for it in other historical sources. So it is a pure presupposition! L frequently uses the word ‘fiction’; he claims that the critics with whom he disagrees, and who speak of theologoumena, are proposing “fiction.” I shall return to this point. L takes ‘chaira‘ in Lk 1:28 to mean “rejoice,” while most scholars take it to mean “Greetings”; but L speaks as though there were a plot against his translation. Similarly, Lk speaks of “eyewitnesses and ministers”; the majority view among scholars is that he means witnesses to Christ’s public ministry; the minority view—and it is defensible—is that he means witnesses already to the birth of Jesus and John; but L, who takes the minority view, thinks the majority is “rabid” against his view. Well, Fitzmyer isn’t rabid about it (cites a passage). At one point L even speaks of the “excrements of historical exegesis.” Such language I would rather leave where excrement is usually found.

Worst of all, L misrepresents those whom he criticizes. For example, L says that Fitzmyer is more radical than I am on the virginal conception — that he thinks it was not a fact even in the mind of Luke. But in fact Fitzmyer agrees with me that Lk was thinking of the virginal conception as a fact. At one point F says that my argument on this is “forceful,” but L translates him as saying that my argument is “forcé“! In this context, let me come back to the term theologoumenon. I have always spelled out what I mean by it; I mean the historicizing of what was originally a theological statement — I have never said “fictional” historicizing. But L accuses me of this. He says that I think Lk put the Magnificat into his narrative in order to re-value Mary, as part of a design forging this fictional theologoumenon. Well, I do think that Lk put the canticles in, but I said that I think they fit the historical characters. Furthermore, I reject as unlikely the thesis that the virginal conception is a theologoumenon, and I have said that the theory which holds that it is one is not an adequate theory. Yet I am accused by L of holding this theory. Likewise I have expressed my doubt that the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem or His davidic descent can be taken as theologoumena though I think the genealogy may be one And there is in any case a vast range of possibilities lying between pure history and pure fiction. For example, certain historical events may have been remembered and handed down in a popular or figurative way, so that the result is no longer “history” but is not “fiction” either.

L also misrepresents me by saying that I make the Virgin Mary symbolic rather than historical. L bases this charge upon a passage in which I am discussing the views of Pannenberg; he had held that the NT tells us very few facts about her, and that the development of Marian doctrine was therefore based primarily on the figure she presents as a symbol; I agree with him that the NT provides very few facts and hence that she lends herself to symbolic treatment. But this whole discussion of mine was about the principle of Mariology — not exegesis. If L thinks he can extrapolate from the one topic to the other, his view of exegesis must be very different from mine (i.e. L must differ from Brown over how far one’s exegesis can and should be kept independent of one’s theological principles?).

Enough of the negative. What is good about L’s book? Well, there are 290 pp on semiotic, in which there are many points of interest. But I think that the results of L’s semiotic treatment yield little that would change the basic picture of the infancy narratives, as that picture has already been drawn by historical exegesis. Of course, semiotics is very French movement; I don’t think I am French enough to dabble in it.

So let me quote a French reviewer of L’s book (quotes from a review by someone with a name which sounded like Mondeboux) to the effect that the tidal wave of semiotics has reached its peak and begun to recede, leaving a few beaches changed in shape but the coastline unaltered,

The basic picture remains unchanged because, whatever the merits of semiotics, L’s arguments for basic changes in the critical picture are invalid or fanciful. Namely:

  • one of L’s arguments in favor of the historicity of the infancy narratives is that, if the evangelists had been inventing them out of whole cloth, they would have followed general Jewish conceptions and presented Jesus as simply coming down from Heaven. But there is no evidence that such a descent of the Messiah from Heaven was in fact a Jewish expectation; so there is no reason to suppose that the evangelists, if free to create, would have written such an account rather than the sort of account we now have; so L’s argument is invalid.
  • L says there was firm local tradition at Nazareth that Jesus was not the son of Joseph; he instances the “constant avoidance” of the phrase, “Jesus son of Joseph,” except on the lips of Jesus’s adversaries. But this alleged avoidance does not exist: look at John 1:45.
  • L interprets ‘kecharitōmenē’ the way St. John Chrysostom did, and he defends this procedure by saying that Chrysostom certainly knew his Greek. I’m sure he did, too, but such a defense cannot stand because Chrysostom, besides his knowledge of Greek, was basing his interpretation on four centuries of Christian doctrinal developments (hence his ideas may be conceptually anachronistic?).
  • L argues that Gal. 4:4 alludes to the virginal conception, because otherwise the phrase “born of woman” would be unnatural. Would it be more natural to say “born of a man”? (Laughter.) But I do not rest my objection on that point. Rather, there is much evidence that “born of woman” was a standard Jewish expression, and L presents no evidence to the contrary.
  • Luke doesn’t mention Mary in his passion narrative, but L thinks that Lk means for us to understand that she was there. L says that this hidden allusion to the Virgin is “dans la manière de Luc.” But this is pure fantasy “dans la manière de Laurentin.” (Laughter.)
  • In dealing with the story of the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple, L simply presupposes the foreknowledge of Jesus.
  • As to the phrase, “I do not know man,” in Lk 1:34, L argues that it is a statement of permanent commitment, like “I do not smoke.” (Laughter.) But L does not bother to study other annunciation stories to examine the nature of the objections advanced in them. If he had, he would have seen that the objections deal with current obstacles, not necessarily with permanent or future intentions.
  • L points out that, in the ancient world, there really were astrologers who watched the stars, that they made political deductions from their observations, that Herod was a cruel king, etc. — all to make the point that Mt’s infancy narrative has verisimilitude and hence should be taken as historical. The trouble is that verisimilitude never proves historicity. After all, a forger or writer of fiction will also try to imitate fact.

Hence verisimilitude only proves plausibility.

  • L observes that the prophecies quoted in Mt’s infancy narrative do not mesh very well with the events which are supposed to be their fulfillments; he then argues that, if Mt were making up the events, he would have made them fit the prophecies better; therefore the events must be real. But this failure to mesh is exactly the reason why most critics think that Mt inserted the prophecies into a pre-existing narrative; it proves nothing about the historicity of that narrative. L fails to face this alternative.
  • L boldly asserts that there is simply no need to reconcile the infancy stories of Mt and Lk, and hence makes no attempt to do so. He thus evades in a purely rhetorical way what is really the major problem about taking these stories as historical. Certainly the divergence of the two accounts is why I have trouble taking them as historical — not the fact that they contain miracles.
  • From the mere fact that Lk 1:32 mentions the title ‘son of the Most High’ before the title ‘son of David’, L jumps to the conclusion that Lk knew (or his informant knew?) the mystery of Jesus’s divine filiation.
  • L admits that “Paul was not without conceptual embarrassment” over the virginal conception. (Point of this item unclear)
  • As to the Canticles, L defends their exact historicity not only by assuming that Mary composed one of them (the Magnificat) but by advancing the idea that she memorized the other two (Benedictus and Nunc Dimittis) upon first hearing! (Laughter.)
  • L argues that Lk couldn’t have created his infancy narrative, because it is too profound. Only a soul supremely steeped in contemplation, like that of the Blessed Virgin, could have produced it. This is hopelessly subjective.
  • L argues that Mt and Lk would naturally have searched for information about the origins of Jesus. If they searched, why would they have found nothing? And if they found something, why would they have resorted to fiction? This reasoning is invalid because, again, L sees no intermediate possibilities between fiction and pure history.
  • Even Card. Daniélou failed at one point to satisfy L’s demand for historicity: Daniélou conceded that the song of the angels (Lk 2:14) might have been composed and inserted later. L counters this lapse by appealing to the experiences of St. Catharine Labouré. (Laughter.)

In sum: this book is fanciful — beyond the pale of Biblical criticism.

Yet, despite everything, I think that L and I agree on the following significant points: that the infancy narratives are True Gospel, that they are poetically sensitive accounts, that they shouldn’t fall victim to rationalistic treatment, that they shouldn’t be dismissed as “myth” or “fiction” in the layman’s sense of those words, and that they give us a high Christology. L’s readers would get the impression that I disagree with him on these points, but I don’t. I really only disagree with him on the historicity of certain narrative details. Even as regards these details, I do not assert that they are unhistorical. I don’t even say that there were no Magi. I only say that there are difficulties against taking these details as historical. Therefore, if you are going to assert their historicity, the burden of proof is on you. You will have to be able to prove it. This is what L cannot do.

In my opinion, you can be a respectable Christian scholar whether or not you believe that there was a star, a visit of Magi, a flight into Egypt, etc. I have not claimed that any of these things is unhistorical; I simply don’t know whether they are or not. But the virginal conception is another matter: I have said that it is a dogma of the Church.

In conclusion, I agree that L has written “a significant book” — but that book is the one he wrote in 1957. His new book is just revisionism of the first type; as an attempt at revisionism of the second type, the new book is a revisionism manque.

Questions from the Audience

Q. Has Fr. Eamonn Carroll read and responded to Laurentin’s book?

A. I don’t know? I have great respect for Fr. Carroll.

Q. Do you know Laurentin personally?

A. Never met him.

Q. Why doesn’t he ever come to our conventions and talk to his peers?

A. Laurentin is a Mariologist, not a Biblical scholar, so it’s not surprising that he doesn’t come to conventions in our field.

Q. What the devil is this “semiotic”?

A. That is very hard to explain. It involves looking at the number of occurrences of each word and in what combinations the author uses it. It can get rather mathematical. We had a paper on it at the SBL a few years ago? the author conceded that the results of semiotic analysis might seem slight to us, but this is because the method is still waiting to make some further break-throughs.

Q. The infancy stories of Mt and Lk seem very different? it’s hard to see how they could mesh. Just how different are they?

A. Yes, they are very different, and this is the real problem about their historicity — not the miracles. Apart from the virginal conception itself, the only points Mt and Lk agree about is that the birth took place in Bethlehem, and that a name was preannounced by an angel. Beyond that, things diverge sharply. There is also a major problem about the accuracy of the time-frame Lk sets up: Quirinius was not governor of Syria at any time while Herod the Great was alive.

Q. I am surprised that you have not made a strong attack on semiotics? you seem non- committal about its merits, in a spirit of methodological ecumenism. Yet you said that the crucial question for interpretation was what the author consciously intended to convey, whereas semiotics insists in principle that the author and his intentions are to be set aside. If you chose to attack semiotics on this ground, you would have S. Hirsch, The Validation of Interpretations, on your side.

A. I am not familiar with that book. But you are right that I take a neutral attitude as regards semiotic method, and I do so because I acknowledge that a text can convey points outside the conscious intent of the author and can take on a certain life of its own.

Comments by WHM

(1) Brown read from his prepared text at a rapid clip and in a far from booming voice; hence it was very difficult for the note-taker to keep up with him. Titles of books and Journals went by too fast for me to catch. Throughout the above notes, I have used parentheses to enclose reportorial comments or summaries; if the parenthetical material ends in a question, it represents a conjecture on my part.

(2) A further point of importance for the content of Brown’s position emerged in a discussion which Brown had with one of my students on the way out of the auditorium. Brown had said (as you see above) that he takes the virginal conception to be a dogma of the Church. I had alerted the student to the fact that, in previously published material, Brown had eviscerated this sound-looking declaration by going on to wonder whether the Church’s dogma includes a biological facto So the student put the question to him directly: “Does this dogma include a biological fact?” Brown’s reply was: “I think it does.” The implication clearly seemed to be that a contrary opinion was conceivable, “respectable” or tenable within the Church. So I am tempted to compare Fr. Brown’s position to that of Gov. Cuomo: “I am personally opposed to denying that this dogma contains a biological fact, but I will not impose my views on others.”

(3) The reaction of Brown’s audience was overwhelmingly favorable, of course. They took his speech as a witty, incisive, even devastating review. My own students (five or six of whom attended, and who were all antecendently opposed to Brown’s general views) were no exception. I had to win them back to Laurentin’s side, more or less, afterwards, by explaining to them the hidden tactic in Brown’s address, by which he had managed to create such a devastating effect. The tactic, of course, was selective quotation. Brown had said that Laurentin attacked the “presuppositions” of historico-critical exegesis, but he never quoted any of the lengthy passages in which Laurentin spells out this attack. Apart from an allusion to “sweeping charges” of rationalism, positivism, etc., Brown’s audience could form no picture of what Laurentin’s challenge to the critics amounted to. They could not guess that very definite alternatives to certain very definite tendencies of the critics (such as the tendency to posit behind every text another text or tradition, never an event) were being advanced by Laurentin and cogently defended. This silence on Brown’s part, as to the foundations of his opponent’s position, served his rhetorical purposes in two regards.

On the one hand, it allowed Brown to present a long series of Laurentin’s arguments as “fanciful” lapses from critical orthodoxy, rather than as what they really were: forms of argument which Laurentin had carefully legitimated in his critique of critical orthodoxy (and which are accepted among historians in other fields in any case). In other words, Laurentin had made a serious effort to wrench the reader’s mind out of certain conventional ruts and into a perspective from which these arguments could regain their natural force. Brown, by hiding that effort from his audience, made the arguments fall upon unprepared ears, and upon minds still accustomed to the ruts.

On the other hand, and more deeply, Brown’s silence allowed him to avoid confronting the real issue between himself and Laurentin, hence allowed him to perpetuate the illusion that he has a secure bailiwick, into which a stranger has lucklessly strayed. Indeed, the fundamental strategy of Brown’s address was to “review,” in his capacity as expert exegete, Laurentin’s book as the adventure of a Mariologist erring outside his field. This strategy required an absolute refusal to acknowledge that the book had called the reviewer’s expertise into any sort of question. Hence, by adopting this strategy, Brown simply declined the intellectual opportunity which the book afforded: the opportunity to admit that precise points of his critical method itself (not just its results) had come under methodological challenge (not just pastoral, theological, or fundamentalist challenge), and to state that challenge frankly, and to answer it frontally. Of course, for those of us who have been watching Brown over the years, this shrinking from theoretical challenge can hardly come as a surprise. He has made his career by mastering the “consensus” of critical exegetes, taking it as a “given,” and by adapting himself to it? his emergence as a world-class exegete has been the success of a chameleon. Nevertheless, despite the predictability of its strategy, Brown’s address must be called a disappointment. The Catholic heritage of theology is an immensely sophisticated one; those who wish to introduce into it a supine acceptance of the post-Protestant critical consensus must sooner or later face their theoretical challengers. When they do, I am far from supposing that men like Brown will be easily vanquished. They have much to say in their defense. Our debate with them is likely to involve partial victories on both sides. But that is precisely why the time is overdue for that debate to begin. Brown’s strategy of delay is disappointing just because it is ultimately futile.

(4) I also told my students that the tone of theological moderation (even conservatism) which they were hearing from Brown, and which surprised them of course agreeably, was also not to be trusted. Such a tone is again part of his strategy: the errant stranger in the field must not be allowed to cry alarm. In the secure bailiwick of the exegetes, all must be seen to be prudent, moderate, sensible, and even (in a robust, large-minded sense of the word) orthodox. The stranger’s complaints of exotic error (positivism? idealism?) must be made to appear groundless. This is partly done by distorting the complaint (Laurentin had said that the critical method had its roots and justifications in certain 19th century systems of philosophy, but Brown distorted this into the charge that critical exegetes had become converts to these forgotten systems!) and partly done by exuding an air of doctrinal safety.

Yet Brown could not entirely succeed in hiding beneath this conservative veneer the alarmingly radical sub-structure of his position. My students caught a glimpse of it at

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