Is the Pope a Biblical Expert?
The answer to the question “Is the Pope a biblical expert?” might seem to be an obvious “Yes, of course” for many people. But the question is still worth asking: is the current Pope (Francis) or are the Popes that recently preceded him really experts on the Bible? The purpose of this post is not to get into a Pope-by-Pope historical assessment of biblical expertise (or lack thereof), but rather to pose the question for deeper consideration.
An odd but pertinent question
This question has actually been posed to me on a number of occasions, by different individuals, under similar conversational contexts. One is able to discern from some of my blog posts, information or references I typically share, or conversations I have on biblical subjects, that I often recommend learning from biblical scholars. In regards to the subject of learning about the Bible, I often suggest that laypersons are well served in taking advantage of the rigorous education, years of research, and dedicated lives of biblical scholars by simply listening to (or, mostly reading) what they have to say. If one is not up for acquiring and navigating through dense academic books or peer reviewed articles, there are plenty of online lectures or short interviews of renowned biblical experts. Unfortunately, all too often people think that they do not need experts of various fields because they are confident that they know better, especially when it comes to matters like religion or the Bible (see my post Excising the Experts).
In my discussions with people about the benefit of reading publications written by professors and qualified experts in Biblical Studies rather than listening to just anybody or even to popular spiritual leaders, I have been asked the question, “Well, what about the Pope? Is he a biblical expert?” Sometimes the question is asked as a rebuttal, but more often it comes from genuine curiosity raised as my interlocutor comes to realise that such a popular, influential, and powerful leader of religion may actually not be an ‘expert’ on many things pertaining to the Bible.
Recently Pope Francis claimed that a portion of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6.13; Luke 11.4) should be translated differently. You can read about it here and here. Basically, he said that God does not cause humans to sin, but Satan does, and so we should not translate a portion as ‘lead us not into temptation,’ but ‘do not let us fall into temptation.’ The phrase in question is μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν. The term εἰσενέγκῃς is a 2nd person, singular, aorist, active, subjunctive of the verb εἰσφέρω which means ‘lead into’, ‘bring into’, or ‘bear into’. It just doesn’t mean ‘fall into’ even if one tries to give a more ‘free’ translation. Some biblical scholars responded online about the problem with the Pope’s claim. Bart Ehrman’s response was succinct, accurate, and compelling. Dan Wallace’s comments were also appropriate. In any case, it is doubtful that Pope Francis’ pontification about translation was based upon any rigorous linguistic consideration or scholarly input. And, oddly enough, his conclusion might be a sign of poor knowledge of basic Greek.
To be, or not to be…an expert? That is the question!
When asked about the Pope’s biblical expertise, I usually answer “Not really.” I know this answer could be debated, but allow me to explain. Within the contexts of the discussions that the question is asked, the answer is essentially ‘no’ because Pope Francis does not hold a graduate or doctoral degree in a field of Biblical Studies from a recognised and accredited institution. It is true that he attended seminary in his earlier years in order to become a priest. Typically priests in the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) attend a Catholic seminary or receive some formal Catholic training as a requirement. However, this type of seminary training typically aims to provide higher instruction on Catholicism; that is, the theology, history, doctrines, orders, and practices of the RCC. Most of what is learned biblically is theological (Theology) and not Biblical Studies proper. That is not to say that Biblical Studies is not part of the education; it undoubtedly is. However, this is quite different from the depths pursued or the skills acquired in a graduate or post-graduate programme focused on subjects within the field of Biblical Studies. Some students may go on to further pursue studies and research in this area and even to publish in it. Others do not. For example, Pope Francis attended a Catholic seminary and obtained a degree in Philosophy (Colegio de San José, San Miguel) and later served on the Faculty of Theology.1 He apparently began some doctoral work in Germany at a Jesuit institution in Frankfurt on a Catholic figure, Romano Guardini, but he did not finish.2 Even so, these areas of learning are not the same as those within the academic field of Biblical Studies.
The educational backgrounds of the preceding Popes are more impressive. Pope Benedict XVI was indeed an expert in Theology. He studied philosophy and theology at the University of Munich. His doctorate was in theology on St. Augustine’s ecclesiology. He was a Professor and taught at a number of prestigious German universities after completing a dissertation on St. Bonaventure’s history and theology. This expertise allowed him to play an advising role at Vatican II. In addition to this, he published some resources on Christianity and theology.3 As for Pope John Paul II, after his undergraduate work he attended a Krakow seminary and later completed a doctorate in Theology (or Philosophy) at the Pontifical International Athenaeum Angelicum in Rome on the doctrine of faith in St. John of the Cross (16th century Catholic thinker). He later completed a Habilitation thesis (a second major dissertation completed in German universities to attain Professorship or a major teaching role) in Sacred Theology at the Jagiellonian University on Catholic ethics in the thought of Max Scheler.4 He was certainly educated in biblical languages (Greek and Hebrew) during the course of his studies. The question remains as to how much of this knowledge he retained or was capable of applying in his own works or teachings on doctrines of faith or ethics in later thinkers.
As remarkable as these educational backgrounds are, the academic areas of study on which these popes concentrated are quite different from what goes on in Biblical Studies proper. Theology tends to be differentiated from Biblical Studies in academia (more on this below). Even without a doctorate, or any other official degrees and paperwork for that matter, one might still identify Pope Francis as an ‘expert’ in the areas he has studied and taught. This is completely acceptable. However, I would clarify that Pope Francis may be seen as an expert in areas of Theology, more specifically Catholic Theology, but not necessarily in Biblical Studies. This does not mean that he is unfamiliar with subjects or debates within Biblical Studies, but familiarity does not deem him an expert. Undoubtedly, Pope John Paul II and especially Pope Benedict XVI can be identified as experts in Theology and Ecclesiology.
Theology vs. Biblical Studies: what’s the difference?
A good explanation of Theology vs. Biblical Studies can be found in this blog post. Most universities which have a Religious Studies department or most seminaries have separate disciplines for Theology and Biblical Studies, both of which often have sub-disciplines of focus as well, such as Systematic Theology, Historical Theology, or Practical Theology in the former and New Testament or Old Testament in the latter. These disciplines are referred to by different titles as well, so Old Testament is often called Hebrew Bible or is within Jewish Studies and New Testament is often called [Early] Christianity. Sometimes a focus incorporating multiple fields including Theology is called Divinity. Historical Theology is sometimes called Patristics or even Ecclesiastical History. Various institutions will have different terms or titles for sub-disciplines and faculties. A closer look at what types of research particular faculty performs or what classes they teach can clarify their areas of expertise. Nevertheless, one very general way to put it is that Theology and its sub-disciplines are often more philosophical5 whereas Biblical Studies is often literary (focusing on ancient languages) and historical (focusing on backgrounds). The latter is often concerned with matters of translation and exegesis. These are generalisations and there is certainly overlap between these subjects, but classifications are recognised in academia. For instance, we differentiate between a Professor of New Testament who researches the ‘Synoptic Problem’ from a Professor of Systematic Theology who researches hamartiology; we do not refer to a Lecturer in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible who studies and teaches pre-exilic Israelite cultic practices as a Lecturer in Medieval Judaism who studies and teaches the thought of Rashi or Rambam. A Professor of Historical Theology who publishes on the thought of John Chrysostom is not typically identified as a Professor of Biblical Criticism who publishes on the historical Jesus. These are different areas of expertise or emphasis. The point is, just like any academic field of study, institutions and people (faculty and students) specialise and differentiate subjects as well as approaches of study.
Sure, an expert in Theology (of its various aspects or sub-disciplines) is a ‘biblical expert’ because the Bible is a crucial basis for that subject and one must interact with it regularly. However, knowing Theology based upon the biblical texts is not the same thing as knowing what scholars of Biblical Studies have said or are saying about those texts. By way of example, a Professor of Historical Theology may look at what Theologians have said about a particular passage, but not be researching what Textual Critics or Biblical Critics (Biblical Studies scholars) have said about that passage. Likewise, a Biblical Studies scholar may not read anything published by a Systematic Theologian or expert of Historical Theology on a particular verse in the Bible. Yet, many scholars are specialised experts in areas of Theology or Biblical Studies, but maintain an exceptional knowledge of other areas and in fact incorporate these into their own research, teaching and publications. This is especially true of Biblical Studies scholars who research Rezeptionsgeschichte (Reception History) or Wirkungsgeschichte (Effective History), or the like. There are Theologians well informed in Biblical Studies and there are scholars of Biblical Studies well informed in Theology. Nonetheless, would we identify the Pope as an expert of either Theology or Biblical Studies, or both?
The Pope is not a ‘biblical expert’, but an expert in other fields
All of this being said, it is safe to say that the current Pope (Francis) is not a ‘biblical expert’. Applying the label ‘biblical expert’ to Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI is perhaps more debatable, but based upon the definition of ‘biblical’ that I have been presenting, it would be best to use other terms to describe their areas of expertise. These popes may be experts in some matters of Theology (especially Theology of the RCC or Historical Theology) or areas of Ecclesiastical Theology and History. They may be experts in the doctrines and orders of the RCC. They may be well informed about many political, social, and global matters (as those sorts of things tend to come with the job!). These popes may know biblical texts fairly well and be familiar with scholarly ideas and debates on various matters, even within Biblical Studies. They may have a decent handle on ancient biblical languages (Semitic languages, forms of Greek, obviously Latin). Pope Francis, for instance, probably learned about some topics, issues, and details of Biblical Studies at some point in his life (perhaps during his seminary training many years ago). Pope John Paul II may have been even more familiar with academic matters of Biblical Studies than Pope Francis, but his own areas of expertise were mainly on Catholic and Reformation doctrines of faith and ethics. Pope Benedict XVI was likely more informed about matters in Biblical Studies, but even so his areas of expertise were in Theology, Philosophy, and Ecclesiology. Perhaps a good indicator is looking at the topics on which a person (or pope) has been awarded advanced degrees, published, and taught.
Nevertheless, to my knowledge, Pope Francis was not nor has been an active participant in the field of Biblical Studies, academically or as an independent researcher. The same could be said for Pope John Paul II and probably even for Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis is probably not too well read in areas such as Biblical Criticism (Source Criticism, Redaction Criticism, Form Criticism, Literary Criticism, Historical Criticism, etc.), Historical Jesus Research, Reception Studies, Christology, Second Temple Judaism(s) (including but not limited to OT apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, the works of Philo and Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls), NT apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, and so on and so forth. I don’t doubt that Pope Francis or Pope John Paul II were introduced to scholarly publications and conversations in these areas during their studies (as are most seminary or religious studies students), but it is unlikely that they have explored these topics in depth or kept up with them. I also am confident that they are well acquainted with some of the OT apocrypha and Christian patristic writings. However, to give some examples, Pope Francis is probably not familiar with (or perhaps up to date on) expert discussions about the potential significance of ancient Graeco-Roman texts for the genre of Acts. Even experts within fields such as Biblical Studies tend to specialise, so scholars on Paul may not be as informed on this topic as are scholars on Luke-Acts. It would be rather impressive if Pope Francis was more read on this and surrounding issues than many professors of Biblical Studies around the world. It is unlikely that Pope Francis is aware of the work going on within scholarship on ‘Paul within Judaism’ (or the so-called ‘Radical New Perspective on Paul’). I would suggest that he has not spent time acquiring and reading the academic publications in this area (and this not simply due to his demanding schedule). Still, most experts remain engaged with other topics and areas of their field so that they are capable of speaking authoritatively on a variety of matters. Yet, it is doubtful that Pope Francis could do the same within the realm of Biblical Studies. Perhaps his ineptitude in this area was already exposed by his recent opinionated comments on biblical translation. In fact, I would venture to guess that he is not aware of the names and works of even some of the most popular Biblical scholars past or present.
Don’t get me wrong—I generally like the current Pope! This may come as a shock to some, but I don’t know him personally. Nevertheless, from what I can tell, he is a brilliant, nice, humorous, and thoughtful person. I don’t intend to come down harshly on the Pope or the RCC. In some of my previous posts I have spoken quite positively about my experiences with more traditional forms of Christianity, such as Anglicanism and Anglo-Catholicism (Experiencing Anglicanism) and Eastern Orthodoxy (Experiencing Eastern Orthodoxy and a Recommendation). Many of my comments there pertain also to the RCC. I think the Pope is an expert and being the Pope, but being the Pope is apparently unrelated to be being well versed in Biblical scholarship or being an expert in Biblical Studies.
The point of this post is to bring up a question that I receive on occasion in a specific context (talking about the academic study of the Bible and related topics) and to explain why the answer is a bit complicated. I wanted to bring a particular question into question; that is, a question reflecting an opinion held by much of the common populace about the presumed biblical expertise of the Pope. From an academic or scholarly point of view, the question “Is the Pope a biblical expert?” cannot simply be answered in the affirmative, as perhaps other similar questions could, such as “Is the Pope an expert on Catholic Theology?” or “Is the Pope an expert on the Roman Catholic Church?” The answers to these latter questions are a more assured “Yes” or the good old fashioned rejoinder anticipating a positive response, “Is the Pope Catholic?!”
1. See http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/biography/documents/papa-francesco-biografia-bergoglio.html
2. See http://www.spiegel.de/panorama/spurensuche-in-deutschland-papst-franziskus-und-sankt-georgen-a-888849.html
3. See http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/biography/documents/hf_ben-xvi_bio_20050419_short-biography.html
4. See http://www.vatican.va/special/canonizzazione-27042014/documents/biografia_gpii_canonizzazione_en.html
5. Theology is also very much historical where figures and their writings are studied or a topic is traced diachronically.