The Bible in context

Marie-Joseph Lagrange OP: photograph

Image reproduced by kind permission of the École biblique, Jerusalem

In 1858 the famous confessor and curé at Ars blessed a sickly toddler. The child grew up to have a lifelong devotion to the saint, but while the Curé d’Ars was famous for his struggle to master the basics in philosophy and theology required for ordination, the young Albert (later Marie-Joseph) Lagrange became the champion of modern Catholic biblical studies.

Lagrange entered the Toulouse Dominican province in 1879. By then he had a doctorate in law and already knew by heart the Gospel of St Luke in Greek. He was soon learning Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, and was sent to Vienna where he studied hieroglyphic Egyptian and Assyrian as well as rabbinical exegesis. In 1889 Lagrange was suddenly sent to the Middle East where he was to found in 1890 a small school of advanced biblical studies at the Order’s priory of St Étienne in Jerusalem. He recognized the importance of studying the Bible in its geographical context. His major challenge, however, would be to establish for fellow Catholics the importance of the Bible’s literary and historical contexts while still proclaiming it to be the Word of God.

To promote Catholic biblical scholarship Lagrange founded first the periodical Revue biblique which was to publish articles on exegesis by teachers at the Jerusalem school and elsewhere, and second Études bibliques, a series of commentaries which began with a study of Judges published in 1903. Church censorship was a continual possibility. Lagrange challenged in his lectures and articles the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and he denied the historicity (though not the truth) of the creation narrative in Genesis 1–11. As a result, he found himself forbidden to publish a commentary on Genesis. Lagrange turned instead to commenting on the Gospels, and his work on Mark’s Gospel was eventually published in 1911. It proposed that Mark was a source for Matthew and Luke. Its use was soon forbidden in Catholic seminaries. Even so, Lagrange published further commentaries on Luke (1921), Matthew (1923), and John (1925). Père Lagrange died in 1938. Only with the encyclical of Pius XII Divino afflante spiritu in 1943 did the Church officially acknowledge the importance of literary genres in Biblical studies. The École biblique would go on to become a renowned centre of Catholic biblical scholarship.

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