The Pontifical Biblical Commission & the Problem of the Parousia (Part 2 of 3)

In the last post we treated the first of three points in the PBC’s teaching concerning the Second Coming of Christ. Today we turn to the second part of the document. I have abbreviated the question due to the fact that its grammatical structure is somewhat convoluted.

Question 2: “Whether it is fitting to affirm that the apostle Paul certainly declared in his writings nothing that is not in perfect harmony with that ignorance of the time of the Parousia, which Christ himself proclaimed to obtain among human beings.”

Response 2: “Affirmative.”

This one has a double negative that makes it grammatically challenging, but take that out and you find that the PBC teaches it is “fitting” to affirm that what Paul taught concerning the parousia was “in perfect harmony” with what Jesus said on the topic–namely that we know neither the day nor the hour when he will come again. The underlying reference here is to Mk 13:32.

The choice of the word “fitting” (Latin oporteat) here is perhaps significant. I would want to verify this with a classicist, but the word may be translated variously as “necessary,” “proper,” or “becoming” in addition to other renderings. Did the PBC deliberately avoid using a strong word like necesse (“necessary,” “essential”) in favor of a softer word so as to avoid requiring Catholics to affirm that Paul’s teaching on the time of the parousia is perfectly consonant with that of Jesus? I don’t know, but I would welcome input as it could potentially help exculpate this document if one were to conclude that Paul did in fact think that the end of time was near in his day. To my mind, however, when one takes into account the overall tenor of the PBC documents in this period, one good argument against this is that it seems unlikely the PBC would have been open to the possibility of a discrepancy between the thought of Paul and Jesus, respectively.

In summary, in this question we find the PBC teaching that Paul and Jesus both affirmed the impossibility of knowing when the time of the Second Coming will be. Good, but does this sufficiently deal with the problematic texts raised in the my first post on the parousia? And does it still leave room for the possibility that Paul thought Christ would return in his lifetime even if Paul himself did not know the precise hour?

As we will see in a later post, this PBC document served primarily a practical purpose. It was not concerned with providing sophisticated arguments but rather with giving concise, concrete guidance to Catholic exegetes in the early 20th century. For our purposes, that means we still need to give an argument that confronts the problem of the early Church apparently erring in its expectations concerning the Second Coming.

Before making this argument, however, we need to examine the PBC’s third and final question concerning the parousia. This is the topic I will address next time.


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