"Instruction Concerning the Historical Truth of the Gospels"
Pontifical Biblical Commission
April 21, 1964
English Translation by Joseph Fitzmyer, SJ
Holy Mother the Church, "the pillar and bulwark of truth,"
has always used Sacred Scripture in her task of imparting
heavenly salvation to men. She has always defended it, too, from
every sort of false interpretation. Since there will never be an
end to (biblical) problems, the Catholic exegete should never
lose heart in explaining the divine word and in solving the
difficulties proposed to him. Rather, let him strive earnestly
to open up still more the real meaning of the Scriptures. Let
him rely firmly not only on his own resources, but above all on
the help of God and the light of the Church.
II. It is a source of great joy that there are found today, to
meet the needs of our times, faithful sons of the Church in
great numbers who are experts in biblical matters. They are
following the exhortations of the Supreme Pontiffs and are
dedicating themselves wholeheartedly and untiringly to this
serious and arduous task. "Let all the other sons of the Church
bear in mind that the efforts of these resolute laborers in the
vineyard of the Lord are to be judged not only with equity and
justice, but also with the greatest charity," since even
illustrious interpreters, such as Jerome himself, tried at times
to explain the more difficult questions with no great
success. Care should be had "that the keen strife of debate
should never exceed the bounds of mutual charity. Nor should the
impression be given in an argument that truths of revelation and
divine traditions are being called in question. For unless
agreement among minds be safeguarded and principles be carefully
respected, great progress in this discipline will never be
expected from the diverse pursuits of so many persons."
III. Today more than ever the work of exegetes is needed,
because many writings are being spread abroad in which the truth
of the deeds and words which are contained in the Gospels is
questioned. For this reason the Pontifical Biblical Commission,
in pursuit of the task given to it by the Supreme Pontiffs, has
considered it proper to set forth and insist upon the following
IV. 1. Let the Catholic exegete, following the guidance of the
Church, derive profit from all that earlier interpreters,
especially the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church, have
contributed to the understanding of the sacred text. And let him
carry on their labors still further. In order to put the abiding
truth and authority of the Gospels in their full light, he will
accurately adhere to the norms of rational and Catholic
hermeneutics. He will diligently employ the new exegetical aids,
above all those which the historical method, taken in its widest
sense, offers to him--a method which carefully investigates
sources and defines their nature and value, and makes use of
such helps as textual criticism, literary criticism, and the
study of languages. The interpreter will heed the advice of Pius
XII of happy memory, who enjoined him "prudently to examine what
contribution the manner of expression or the literary form used
by the sacred writer makes to a true and genuine interpretation.
And let him be convinced that this part of his task cannot be
neglected without serious detriment to Catholic exegesis." By
this piece of advice Pius XII of happy memory enunciated a
general rule of hermeneutics, by which the books of the Old
Testament as well as the New must be explained. For in composing
them the sacred writers employed the way of thinking and writing
which was in vogue among their contemporaries. Finally, the
exegete will use all the means available to probe more deeply
into the nature of Gospel testimony, into the religious life of
the early churches, and into the sense and the value of
V. As occasion warrants, the interpreter may examine what
reasonable elements are contained in the "Form-Critical method"
that can be used for a fuller understanding of the Gospels. But
let him be wary, because scarcely admissible philosophical and
theological principles have often come to be mixed with this
method, which not uncommonly have vitiated the method itself as
well as the conclusions in the literary area. For some
proponents of this method have been led astray by the prejudiced
views of rationalism. They refuse to admit the existence of a
supernatural order and the intervention of a personal God in the
world through strict revelation, and the possibility and
existence of miracles and prophecies. Others begin with a false
idea of faith, as if it had nothing to do with historical
truth--or rather were incompatible with it. Others deny the
historical value and nature of the documents of revelation
almost a priori. Finally, others make light of the authority of
the apostles as witnesses to Christ, and of their task and
influence in the primitive community, extolling rather the
creative power of that community. All such views are not only
opposed to Catholic doctrine, but are also devoid of scientific
basis and alien to the correct principles of historical method.
VI. 2. To judge properly concerning the reliability of what is
transmitted in the Gospels, the interpreter should pay diligent
attention to the three stages of tradition by which the doctrine
and the life of Jesus have come down to us.
VII. Christ our Lord joined to Himself chosen disciples, who
followed Him from the beginning, saw His deeds, heard His
words, and in this way were equipped to be witnesses of His life
and doctrine. When the Lord was orally explaining His
doctrine, He followed the modes of reasoning and of exposition
which were in vogue at the time. He accommodated Himself to the
mentality of His listeners and saw to it that what He taught was
firmly impressed on the mind and easily remembered by the
disciples. These men understood the miracles and other events of
the life of Jesus correctly, as deeds performed or designed that
men might believe in Christ through them, and embrace with faith
the doctrine of salvation.
VIII. The apostles proclaimed above all the death and
resurrection of the Lord, as they bore witness to Jesus. They
faithfully explained His life and words, while taking into
account in their method of preaching the circumstances in which
their listeners found themselves. After Jesus rose from the
dead and His divinity was clearly perceived, faith, far from
destroying the memory of what had transpired, rather confirmed
it, because their faith rested on the things which Jesus did and
taught. Nor was He changed into a "mythical" person and His
teaching deformed in consequence of the worship which the
disciples from that time on paid Jesus as the Lord and the Son
of God. On the other hand, there is no reason to deny that the
apostles passed on to their listeners what was really said and
done by the Lord with that fuller understanding which they
enjoyed, having been instructed by the glorious events of
the Christ and taught by the light of the Spirit of Truth.
So, just as Jesus Himself after His resurrection "interpreted to
them" the words of the Old Testament as well as His own,
they too interpreted His words and deeds according to the needs
of their listeners. "Devoting themselves to the ministry of the
word," they preached and made use of various modes of
speaking which were suited to their own purpose and the
mentality of their listeners. For they were debtors "to
Greeks and barbarians, to the wise and the foolish." But
these modes of speaking with which the preachers proclaimed
Christ must be distinguished and (properly) assessed:
catecheses, stories, testimonia, hymns, doxologies, prayers--and
other literary forms of this sort which were in Sacred Scripture
and were accustomed to be used by men of that time.
IX. This primitive instruction, which was at first passed on by
word of mouth and then in writing--for it soon happened that
many tried "to compile a narrative of the things" which
concerned the Lord Jesus--was committed to writing by the sacred
authors in four Gospels for the benefit of the churches, with a
method suited to the peculiar purpose which each (author) set
for himself. From the many things handed down they selected some
things, reduced others to a synthesis, (still) others they
explicated as they kept in mind the situation of the churches.
With every (possible) means they sought that their readers might
become aware of the reliability of those words by which they
had been instructed. Indeed, from what they had received the
sacred writers above all selected the things which were suited
to the various situations of the faithful and to the purpose
which they had in mind, and adapted their narration of them to
the same situations and purpose. Since the meaning of a
statement also depends on the sequence, the Evangelists, in
passing on the words and deeds of our Saviour, explained these
now in one context, now in another, depending on (their)
usefulness to the readers. Consequently, let the exegete seek
out the meaning intended by the Evangelist in narrating a saying
or a deed in a certain way or in placing it in a certain
context. For the truth of the story is not at all affected by
the fact that the Evangelists relate the words and deeds of the
Lord in a different order, and express his sayings not
literally but differently, while preserving (their) sense.
For, as St. Augustine says, "It is quite probable that each
Evangelist believed it to have been his duty to recount what he
had to in that order in which it pleased God to suggest it to
his memory in those things at least in which the order, whether
it be this or that, detracts in nothing from the truth and
authority of the Gospel. But why the Holy Spirit, who apportions
individually to each one as He wills, and who therefore
undoubtedly also governed and ruled the minds of the holy
(writers) in recalling what they were to write because of the
pre-eminent authority which the books were to enjoy, permitted
one to compile his narrative in this way, and another in that,
anyone with pious diligence may seek the reason and with divine
aid will be able to find it."
X. Unless the exegete pays attention to all these things which
pertain to the origin and composition of the Gospels and makes
proper use of all the laudable achievements of recent research,
he will not fulfil his task of probing into what the sacred
writers intended and what they really said. From the results of
the new investigations it is apparent that the doctrine and the
life of Jesus were not simply reported for the sole purpose of
being remembered, but were "preached" so as to offer the Church
a basis of faith and of morals. The interpreter (then), by
tirelessly scrutinizing the testimony of the Evangelists, will
be able to illustrate more profoundly the perennial theological
value of the Gospels and bring out clearly how necessary and
important the Church's interpretation is.
XI. There are still many things, and of the greatest importance,
in the discussion and explanation of which the Catholic exegete
can and must freely exercise his skill and genius so that each
may contribute his part to the advantage of all, to the
continued progress of sacred doctrine, to the preparation and
further support of the judgment to be exercised by the
ecclesiastical magisterium, and to the defense and honor of the
Church. But let him always be disposed to obey the
magisterium of the Church, and not forget that the apostles,
filled with the Holy Spirit, preached the good news, and that
the Gospels were written under the inspiration of the Holy
Spirit, who preserved their authors from all error. "Now we have
not learned of the plan of our salvation from any others than
those through whom the gospel has come to us. Indeed, what they
once preached they later passed on to us in the Scriptures by
the will of God, as the ground and pillar of our faith. It is
not right to say that they preached before they had acquired
perfect knowledge, as some would venture to say who boast of
being correctors of the apostles. In fact, after our Lord rose
from the dead and they were invested with power from on high, as
the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were filled with all (His
gifts) and had perfect knowledge. They went forth to the ends of
the earth, one and all with God's gospel, announcing the news of
God's bounty to us and proclaiming heavenly peace to men."
XII. 3. Those whose task it is to teach in seminaries and
similar institutions should have it as their "prime concern
that. Holy Scripture be so taught as both the dignity of the
discipline and the needs of the times require." Let the
teachers above all explain its theological teaching, so that the
Sacred Scriptures "may become for the future priests of the
Church both a pure and never-failing source for their own
spiritual life, as well as food and strength for the sacred task
of preaching which they are about to undertake." When they
practice the art of criticism, especially so-called literary
criticism, let them not pursue it as an end in itself, but that
through it they might more plainly perceive the sense intended
by God through the sacred writer. Let them not stop, therefore,
halfway, content only with their literary discoveries, but show
in addition how these things really contribute to a clearer
understanding of revealed doctrine, or, if it be the case, to
the refutation of errors. Instructors who follow these norms
will enable their students to find in Sacred Scripture that
which can "raise the mind to God, nourish the soul, and further
the interior life."
XIII. 4. Those who instruct the Christian people in sacred
sermons have need of great prudence. Let them above all pass on
doctrine, mindful of St. Paul's warning: "Look to yourself and
your teaching; hold on to that. For by so doing you will save
both yourself and those who listen to you." They are to
refrain entirely from proposing vain or insufficiently
established novelties. As for new opinions already solidly
established, they may explain them, if need be, but with caution
and due care for their listeners. When they narrate biblical
events, let them not add imaginative details which are not
consonant with the truth.
XIV. This virtue of prudence should be cherished especially by
those who publish for the faithful. Let them carefully bring
forth the heavenly riches of the divine word "that the faithful.
may be moved and inflamed rightly to conform their lives (to
them)." They should consider it a sacred duty never to
depart in the slightest degree from the common doctrine and
tradition of the Church. They should indeed exploit all the real
advances of biblical science which the diligence of recent
(students) has produced. But they are to avoid entirely the rash
remarks of innovators. They are strictly forbidden to
disseminate, led on by some pernicious itch for newness, any
trial solutions for difficulties without a prudent selection and
serious discrimination, for thus they perturb the faith of many.
XV. This Pontifical Biblical Commission has already considered
it proper to recall that books and articles in magazines and
newspapers on biblical subjects are subject to the authority and
jurisdiction of ordinaries, since they treat of religious
matters and pertain to the religious instruction of the
faithful. Ordinaries are therefore requested to keep watch
with great care over popular writings of this sort.
XVI. 5. Those who are in charge of biblical associations are to
comply faithfully with the norms laid down by the Pontifical
XVII. If all these things are observed, the study of the Sacred
Scriptures will contribute to the benefit of the faithful. Even
in our time everyone realizes the wisdom of what St. Paul wrote:
The Sacred Writings "can instruct (us) for salvation through
faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is divinely inspired and
profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for
training in uprightness, so that the man of God may be perfect,
equipped for every good work."
XVIII. The Holy Father, Pope Paul VI, at the audience graciously
granted to the undersigned secretary on April 21, 1964, approved
this Instruction and ordered the publication of it.
Rome, April 21, 1964
Benjamin N. Wambacq, O. Praem.
Secretary of the Commission
Footnotes to the PBC's "Instruction"
* [Fitzmyer's Note]: The numbering of the footnotes of the Latin
is generally preserved; occasionally it has been necessary to
reverse two of them because of the English wording. Words added
in parentheses do not appear in the Latin text; they are
supplied for the sake of the English. Cf. notes 2 and 8
supra.--For some strange reason the references to the Encyclical
Divino afflante Spiritu are given in the Latin text of the
Instruction to the Italian translation of the Encyclical in Acta
apostolicae sedis; we have changed them to the corresponding
pages of the official Latin text.
1) 1 Tim 3:15.
2) Divino afflante Spiritu (hereafter DaS) 46 (EB 564; AAS 35
 319; RSS 101).
3) Cf. Spiritus Paraclitus 2, 3 (EB 451; RSS 50).
4) Apostolic Letter Vigilantiae (EB 143; RSS 33).
5) DaS 38 (EB 560; AAS 35  316; RSS 98).
6) Mk 3:14; Lk 6:13.
7) Lk 1:2; Acts 1:21-22.
8) Lk 24:48; Jn 15:27; Acts 1:8; 10:39; 13:31.
9) Lk 24:44-48; Acts 2:32; 3:15; 5:30-32.
10) Acts 10:36-41.
11) Compare Acts 13:16-41 with Acts 17:22-31.
12) Acts 2:36; Jn 20:28.
13) Acts 2:22; 10:37-39.
14) Jn 2:22; 12:16; 11:51-52; cf. 14:26; 16:12-13; 7:39.
15) Jn 14:26; 16:13.
16) Lk 24:27.
17) Lk 24:44-45; Acts 1:3.
18) Acts 6:4.
19) 1 Cor 9:19-23.
20) Rom 1:14.
21) Lk 1:1.
22) Lk 1:4.
23) Cf. John Chrysostom, Hom. in Matth. 1, 3 (PG 57, 16-17).
24) Augustine, De consensu Evangelistarum 2, 12, 28 (PL 34,
1090-91; CSEL 43, 127-29).
25) 1 Cor 12:11.
26) De consensu Evangelistarum 2, 21, 51-52 (PL 34, 1102; CSEL
27) DaS 47 (EB 565; AAS 35  319; RSS 102).
28) Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 3, 1, 1 (Harvey 2, 2; PG 7,
29) Apostolic Letter Quoniam in re biblica (EB 162; RSS 36).
30) DaS 55 (EB 567; AAS 35  322; RSS 104).
31) DaS 25 (EB 552; AAS 35  311; RSS 93).
32) 1 Tim 4:16.
33) DaS 50 (EB 566; AAS 35  320; RSS 103).
34) Apostolic Letter Quoniam in re biblica 13 (EB 175; RSS 38).
35) Instruction De consocialionibus biblicis. (EB 626).
36) Ibid. (EB 622-33).
37) 2 Tim 3:15-17.
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