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Catholic Science

Chronicle of an Unexpected Demise
François Laplanche
p. 135-136

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1My research is a prolongation of a book published in 1994 by Albin Michel entitled La Bible en France entre mythe et critique (The Bible in France between myth and criticism). This book examined the birth of “Catholic Science” following de Lamennais. The forthcoming book will deal with the possible and unpredictable demise of this science. The period described covers the turn of the century (the crisis of modernism) to the 1970s, when the publication of several works that marked a pause in the quest for Christian roots (Marcel Simon’s La civilisation de l’antiquité et le christianisme, published by Arthaud in 1992 summarizes the postulates of the time). The first half of this century can be characterized by the coexistence of three camps. The first was made up of university historians (Loisy, Guignebert) who applied the methods of the history of religions to the study of the history of Christianity, in particular the comparative method. The second group of proponents of “Catholic science” was represented by the Dominicans of the Ecole Biblique of Jerusalem and professors from the Catholic Institutes in France. The third group was made up of Protestant specialists (Goguel soon followed by Cullmann). I plan to study the contribution of French Jewish approach to this controversy (Isidore Levy). Bultmann was not translated in France before World War II and the Form Criticism movement tended to be rejected.

2In January 1998, I primarily investigated the Loisy/Lagrange debate. The outcome was two lectures I delivered at the Ecole Biblique. In a paper presented at Professor Stroumsa’s seminar at the Hebrew University, I analyzed the history of Israel as presented by Renan.

3What emerges from these investigations is that historians tend to view the history of early Christianity as a reconstruction of its origins. As is the case for all religions and perhaps all nations, the past is seen through the eyes of the present. Here, the Christian act of faith shapes the narrative of the gospels just as monotheism shapes the story of Jewish beginnings. Nevertheless the historians cited above scornfully rejected the opinion of mythologists who argued for the non- existence of Jesus. Rather, there had to be a spark, to use Nietzsche’s term, to kindle the flame of Christian faith. The dispute between university historians and proponents of Christianity basically comes down to the importance of this spark. Protestants, while recognizing the strong imprint of the community on the evangelical narrative did not see why Jesus should not be granted an awareness of his messianic purpose. Catholics, fairly reticent as regards the daring interpretations of neo-testamentary literature, held fast to the historicity of Jesus’ statements on his divine origin. These controversies were heated from 1900 to 1940. I attempt to set them within debates on the general history of religions, which was a locus of confrontation between the historical method and the comparative method.

4In January 1999 I focused on the latter part of this period (1940-1970). I was able to develop an outline on the basis the vast collection of biblical journals available for consultation at the Ecole Biblique. The book reviews help assess the impact of new theories and shed light on the crossfire between the various scientific schools of thought. Several avenues of investigation emerged: Bultmann’s reception in France and the rise of the Form Criticism technique, the return to history prompted by the English scholarly tradition and the German post-Bultmanians; the entry of Catholic scholars in the historical and literary debate concerning the books of the New Testament after the encyclical Divino afflante (1943), confirmed by Vatican II granted them greater latitude. The problem of lack of access to the archives to the pontifical biblical commission can be overcome in part in Jerusalem by recourse to oral tradition and to Lagrange’s correspondence (for the founding period, 1902). Does this sequence of events suggest an end to “Catholic science” as a separate entity? This point will be examined, as well as the growing impact of Jewish science on the origins of Christianity. These debates, as was the case for the first period, will be recast within the general framework of the history of religions; which appears to be much more divisive than in the first half of this century (elimination of the chair of history of religions at the College de France upon the death of Baruzi in 1953.)

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François Laplanche, « Catholic Science », Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem, 4 | 1999, 135-136.

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François Laplanche, « Catholic Science », Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem [En ligne], 4 | 1999, mis en ligne le 02 juin 2008, Consulté le 30 avril 2017. URL :

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François Laplanche

Honorary Research Director

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