Père M-J. Lagrange’s exegetical blancmange

Image result for pere m lagrange


Damien F. Mackey


“To take the Genesis account as historical information … its value is

simply nil in informing us about what happened “in the night of times”.”



Dr. Dominque Tassot, writing an article, “The Influence of Geology on Catholic Exegesis”, for the Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation, tells us something about the opinions of M. Lagrange:



…. On June 30, 1909, the Pontifical Biblical Commission granted liberty to Catholic exegetes to consider the word “yom” either in its proper meaning or in a broader meaning (sensu improprio) of indeterminate duration (DS 2128). In 1896, Fr Lagrange (who had founded Jerusalem’s Biblical College in 1893) rejected “concordism,” considering that the hexameron days and geological periods did not correspond.

The shaping of the Earth went on a long time after the appearance of life; plants and animals developed in parallel. But remains established the fact that the Earth took a considerable time to form. We renounced forever the historic precise duration of six 24 hours days.7


My comment: The ‘Six Days’ of Genesis One, real 24-hour days, have nothing whatsoever to do with the duration of God’s work of creation, and it is futile to attempt to make them fit so-called scientific views about origins, such as the ‘Big Bang’, or an evolutionary-based geology:


What exactly is Creation Science? Part One: Our Western obsession with ‘Science’




Some have observed that the ‘Six Days’ (Hexaëmeron) may be a revelation of a creation already effected. Dr. Tassot continues:


The further influence of Lagrange on Catholic exegesis is indisputable: he devised the three main ways to render the presence of scientific errors in the Bible acceptable. These were set out in five lectures given at the Catholic Institute of Toulouse a century ago, in November 1902, later published under the title The Historical Method. I will not dispute Lagrange’s dedication to the Church and the Bible. But we will touch here upon the direct influence of geology on the exegesis of the 20th century through Lagrange’s ideas.

When a schoolboy, Lagrange used to wander with his uncle, a geologist, in the foothills of the Alps, where he lived. Maybe this explains how readily and completely he accepted the long ages, not only for the earth but also for the history of Man. He wrote in the Biblical Review, which he founded:


Mankind is older than one believed when piously collecting the wrecks of remembrances assumed to be primitive. (…) Humanly speaking, oral transmission from the beginning of the world is supremely unbelievable. (…) To take the Genesis account as historical information, … its value is simply nil in informing us about what happened “in the night of times.”


So Lagrange invented a new and paradoxical concept: “Legendary primitive history.” The Fall, the Curse, the Flood are neither true history nor simple myth. Genesis gives an account based on a “generating fact” but inevitably distorted and downgraded by the transmission through thousands of generations. Another such concept is that of “historical appearances.” Here Lagrange tried to transpose to history what Leo XIIIth said in Providentissimus Deus about astronomy (the Galileo affair!), that the Bible speaks “according to appearances.”

From a Thomistic perspective, our senses give a true path to knowledge. But in the Kantian perspective of that time, “appearance” meant the opposite of reality. In 1919, Lagrange abandoned his theory of “historical appearances,” but the idea remained that the Bible had to be confined to the sphere of religion, and this was indeed the most secure way to prevent any conflict with science.

The third method proposed by Lagrange to explain supposed natural science errors in the Bible was the theory of “literary genres.” The idea underlying this explanation was that one does not deceive when simply asserting the false, but only when teaching it:


All that the sacred writers teach, God also teaches and this is true. But what do the sacred writers really teach? What they affirm categorically. But—it has been said for a long time—the Bible is not a collection of categorical theses or affirmations. There are such literary genres where nothing is taught concerning the reality of the facts. They only serve as basis for a moral teaching.”8 [And further:] “It is impossible that God teaches errors. Of course [there are places in] the Bible, where everybody is speaking errors; but it is impossible that an intelligent examination of the Bible compels us to conclude that God taught errors.”9


It is obvious that an intelligent use of these three methods is sufficient to get rid of any difficult passage of the Bible. But the authority of the Sacred Writings disappears at the same time, divine inspiration and inerrancy being inseparable!

[End of quotes]


We could term this method of exegesis as emptying the Bible of all of its meaning.


Père Marie-Joseph Lagrange (1855-1938) was a Dominican (OP) priest and the Dominicans figure rather prominently in my life inasmuch as OP priests celebrate Masses at the University of Sydney (St. John Paul II) chapel and at Notre Dame University (St. Benedict’s), at both of which places I attend several times a week.

The day that a well-informed friend of mine queried, in an e-mail, the strange biblical views that have emanated from the École Biblique which père Lagrange himself founded in Jerusalem, I happened to attend a Mass at the University of Sydney chapel celebrated by a learned Dominican priest. I thought that I must tell him about the concerned e-mail letter that I had just received, I being particularly interested to get his (Dominican) reaction.

He is a scholar, basically a theologian, who seems to flit effortlessly around Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and French for starters. It soon became clear to me, though, that the Scriptures were essentially, for him, about theology – fair enough – but that what my colleagues and I would consider to be historical accounts were written late, perhaps beginning “about 900 BC”, and that “Moses and Joshua could not personally have written about contemporary events, nor did they record dates”. He also made the typical comment that the early Scriptures would have been passed on by means of “oral tradition”. Also fair enough, but the written aspect always seems to get downplayed. Whilst some of this was starting to rub with me, especially that Moses and Joshua did not write down the biblical events of the time, I did not feel inclined to become argumentative or contrary with a man who has an easy-going, genial nature.

But, at the same time, I tried to push home some bullet points, such as:


  • God told Moses and Joshua to “write”.


  • Moses, in Egypt, was already a learned man and a scribe. [Cf. Acts 7:22]


“Yes”, he replied, “but he did not write in Hebrew, but in Egyptian”.


Some of what the priest said here is, I believe, just plain wrong, and smacks of what I find that père Lagrange had written decades earlier.


Deferring to the Numbers (Chronology) Men


Whilst I (and apparently Monty Python) find accountancy, numbers, to be utterly BORING:


Counsellor: (John Cleese) Ah Mr Anchovy. Do sit down.

Anchovy: (Michael Palin) Thank you. Take the weight off the feet, eh?

Counsellor: Yes, yes.

Anchovy: Lovely weather for the time of year, I must say.

Counsellor: Enough of this gay banter. And now Mr Anchovy, you asked us to advise you which job in life you were best suited for.

Anchovy: That is correct, yes.

Counsellor: Well I now have the results here of the interviews and the aptitude tests that you took last week, and from them we’ve built up a pretty clear picture of the sort of person that you are. And I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that the ideal job for you is chartered accountancy.

Anchovy: But I am a chartered accountant.

Counsellor: Jolly good. Well back to the office with you then.

Anchovy: No! No! No! You don’t understand. I’ve been a chartered accountant for the last twenty years. I want a new job. Something exciting that will let me live.

Counsellor: Well chartered accountancy is rather exciting isn’t it?

Anchovy: Exciting? No it’s not. It’s dull. Dull. Dull. My God it’s dull, it’s so desperately dull and tedious and stuffy and boring and des-per-ate-ly DULL. ….


numbers appear to be greatly revered in modern times. Numbers seem to have replaced ideas.

It probably has something to do with the power that measuring offers, and, even, of man’s seeking to be ‘the measure of all things’. See e.g. my article:


The Futile Aspiration to Make ‘Man the Measure of All Things’




Mathematics makes a wonderful servant, but it can be a very cruel taskmaster.

Chronologists are the powerful numbers men of (ancient) history.

In Egyptology, historians and archaeologists deferred to the ‘superior wisdom’ of the numbers man, Berlin School chronologist, Eduard Meyer (c. 1906), and allowed him to create a chronology of dynastic Egypt that has little bearing on reality. See e.g. my:


The Fall of the Sothic Theory: Egyptian Chronology Revisited




Was Meyer, the numbers man, dull?

“The late great Classical scholar Werner Jaeger once said that the only time the lectures of the immortal Eduard Meyer were really interesting and the only time he was ever able to fill his lecture hall at the University of Berlin was when he talked about the Mormons”.

Enough said!

Meyer’s artificial dating of the Egyptian dynasties did not fit the shorter histories of, say, the Greeks and the Hittites. So, to save the situation, a massive slice of ‘Dark Ages’ (1200-700 BC) had to be inserted into these histories in order to ‘make’ them align with Egypt.

These ‘Dark Ages’ did not occur in real history, and their insertion has caused a disruption to the proper sequence of Greek and Hittite history.

Henk Spaan tells briefly what happened and how Dr. I. Velikovsky had identified the problem: http://www.henkspaan2.nl/velikovsky/15darkages.php

The history of ancient Greece is usually divided into several periods. The Archaic period is the time of ancient Hellas, that ran until about 1200 BC and ended shortly after the Trojan War. During this period Mycenae was the centre. Then followed a period of decline, the Greek Middle Ages, also called Dark Ages, when the country was invaded by primitive Dorians. The Greek heyday that we call Classical Greece, when Athens was the main centre, lasted from about 700 to 323 BC. Finally there is the Hellenistic period that begins with the conquests of Alexander the Great throughout the Middle East. In the Hellenistic period, Alexandria was the centre and the period lasted until the Roman conquest of Egypt.

The part of Velikovsky’s work dealing with “the dark ages of Greece” never appeared in print. Velikovsky worked on it in the last years of his life, but could not finish it. It is published in the Internet archive of his work entitled “The Dark Age of Greece”.

The Mycenaean civilization is closely linked to the 18th Dynasty of Egypt. During excavations in Mycenae, many objects from the 18th Dynasty were found and vice versa in Akhet-Aten, the city that Akhnaton had built, much Mycenaean pottery was found. This means that there must have been a period of more than 500 years between Archaic Greece that existed until 1200 BC and Classical Greece that began around 700 BC. This period is called a dark age because we know little or nothing about it and little remains of this period are found. Understanding those 500 years is difficult, because 500 years of human activity, however primitive, must have left traces above the remains of Mycenaean civilization and there must have been rulers, however barbaric, about whom people wrote of with fear or surprise. However, those traces are not there and neither are the stories. Of the Greek Middle Ages we know of no people like Vikings or Charlemagne of AD history.

Yet, if we move the Mycenaean civilization to 500 years later, it will be closer in line with the rise of Classical Greece and we are then more in line with what, for example, Herodotus and other Greek historians thought about their past. Furthermore, many problems become easier. For example, the famous riddle: how could Homer write a detailed report of the Trojan War if the war took place more than 500 years before Homer wrote his work?


[End of quote]


Thus, when the likes of W.F. Albright, in close alliance with the École Biblique, attempted to date Joshua’s Jericho, the absence of any Mycenaean pottery at the site meant that – at least according to what Eduard Meyer had established chronologically about the Egypt of the same time, that it was to be dated to c. 1400 BC – the Jericho destruction would inevitably have to be shifted back centuries before this time.

A major part in all of this was played by another (pottery-) chronologist (numbers man) and another Dominican, père Louis-Hugues Vincent, who joined the École Biblique only a year after it was founded. Of course, coming for a Lagrangian background, père Vincent was always going to be operating from a base of biblical fluidity.

He, being a pottery-chronologist, was accorded a respect similar to that of the ‘expert’, Meyer. Consequently, we now find ourselves in the situation in which the biblical events have been separated from their right archaeology and history by many centuries – almost a millennium in the case of the famous Jericho incident.

One of my correspondent’s main concerns was that this – the Bible’s no longer fitting with the textbook history – was one of the reasons why many dismiss much of the Scriptures as being myth or fantasy, having little in the way of historical credibility.

“Didactic fiction” is how one elderly Dominican in Sydney has described the Book of Jonah.


Not that the Bible is essentially about history, or science, of course.

For the Dominican priest to whom I spoke, it is really about “theology”.

According to pope Francis, in Aperuit Illis, it is about “our salvation” (# 9):


The Bible is not a collection of history books or a chronicle, but is aimed entirely at the integral salvation of the person. The evident historical setting of the books of the Bible should not make us overlook their primary goal, which is our salvation.


It is clear from this, though, that the biblical books have an “evident historical setting”, contrary to Lagrange’s view that early Genesis is pre-historical, but also non-historical (see below).

Dei Verbum even has “our first parents” (Cardinal Pell take note), Abraham, Moses, and so on.


  1. God, who through the Word creates all things (see John 1:3) and keeps them in existence, gives men an enduring witness to Himself in created realities (see Rom. 1:19-20). Planning to make known the way of heavenly salvation, He went further and from the start manifested Himself to our first parents. Then after their fall His promise of redemption aroused in them the hope of being saved (see Gen. 3:15) and from that time on He ceaselessly kept the human race in His care, to give eternal life to those who perseveringly do good in search of salvation (see Rom. 2:6-7). Then, at the time He had appointed He called Abraham in order to make of him a great nation (see Gen. 12:2). Through the patriarchs, and after them through Moses and the prophets, He taught this people to acknowledge Himself the one living and true God, provident father and just judge, and to wait for the Savior promised by Him, and in this manner prepared the way for the Gospel down through the centuries. ….


  1. Lagrange, on the other hand, according to the following, denied early Genesis historicity: https://exhibitions.lib.cam.ac.uk/dominicans/artifacts/the-bible-in-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.

[End of quote]


The Dominican priest to whom I spoke did not actually deny an Adam and an Eve, but said: “The first man and woman are called Adam and Eve in Genesis, but these would not have been their real names as they are Hebrew names”.


I also advanced this bullet point:


  • The JEDP sources that scholars claim to identify in the Book of Genesis are not fundamentally the sources from which Genesis was compiled. These latter are the toledôt divisions, to be read as endings of family histories, the histories of the pre-Moses patriarchs.


Whilst the priest was familiar with toledôt, he did not comment on my insistence that they were endings, not headings. He admitted to being uncomfortable with JEDP – “you can’t preach it”.

I also recalled to him the case of the French Catholic physician, Jean Astruc, really a pioneer of the modern documentary sources, who had intuitively discerned that the Flood account in Genesis appeared to have been composed from more than one source. The toledôt perfectly accounts for that, of course, it having been written by Noah’s three sons.

The next series, I said, was signed off only by Shem, who must by then have become separated from his brothers, Ham and Japheth.

Furthermore, I said, scholars who deny the influence of Moses in the compilation of the Pentateuch may not have any expertise in the ancient Egyptian language, and are not able, therefore, to discern a prevailing Egyptian influence throughout much of those books – this being an indication that these books, in their original states (before later editing) were written at an early point in time when Israel had been in close contact with Egypt, and not written in a later Babylonian period as the documentists insist.

I queried that, if the early Bible were not really historically or archaeologically relevant, why was it that there is a substantial archaeology underlying e.g. the Conquest when properly dated, and not dated according to the whims of the unreliable chronologists. The Middle Bronze I (MBI) people – the priest knew of them – basically trace the same geographical pattern as do the Exodus Israelites, and they are known to have been bearing Egyptian artefacts. But conventional historians (the more biblically-minded ones) tend to identify the partially nomadic MBI as belonging to the time of Abram (Abraham). Once we fix Abram to his right stratigraphical level, however, which is Late Chalcolithic/Early Bronze I, we can identify the destruction caused by the four invading kings as narrated in Genesis 14, Amraphel of Shinar and his confederacy.


All of this is a real history, with a real underpinning archaeology.


Part Two:

The Book of James considered today



Clearly a farmer is not expected to be patient over a period of centuries for his crop to emerge.

And that is the difficulty with any timetable that does not accord with the bald statements of Jesus Christ and the Apostles that that very generation would be experiencing his “coming”.





The emptying of the meaning from the holy Scriptures that was considered in Part One: https://www.academia.edu/40841418/P%C3%A8re_M-J._Lagrange_s_exegetical_blancmange

in relation to the Dominican founder of the École Biblique in Jerusalem, Pere Marie-J. Lagrange (1855-1938), seems to be a continuing phenomenon among Dominican priests, with one recently emphasising to Catholics at a Mass in Sydney (Notre Dame University), with regard to Genesis: “Whatever you do, don’t take any of this literally”.

Then, a few days later (15th December, 2019), another Dominican priest, at the same venue, made some statements regarding the New Testament Book of James that I would consider to be emptying that book of some of its meaning, and to be implying that the Apostles were rather clueless about “the Second Coming”.


First of all, the priest claimed that the Book of James was written about 90 AD.

That is after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD (conventional dating).

And James was already dead by then.



The bald statements of James regarding Jesus’ imminent return (5:7-8): “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. … the coming of the Lord is at hand” [literally, “has drawn near”]”, was an indication to the Dominican priest that the Apostles did not have any idea as to when the Second Coming was due to occur. But, still, he added, we need to await it patiently just as does a farmer for the land to yield its crop.


Clearly a farmer is not expected to be patient over a period of centuries for his crop to emerge.

And that is the difficulty with any timetable that does not accord with the bald statements of Jesus and the Apostles that that very generation would be experiencing his “coming”:


  • Romans 13:12: “The night is far gone; the day is at hand” [literally, “the day has drawn near”].
  • Hebrews 10:25: “[Do not neglect] to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourag[e] one another, and all the more as (because) you see the Day (already) drawing near.”
  • 1 Peter 4:7: “The end of all things is at hand” [“has drawn near”].


70 AD, far from being a couple of decades before the Book of James was written, was the year when the prophesied “coming” would occur. For more on this, see my article:


Beyond the “Second Coming”





Who was this James?

The following article poses a similar question:


Who Was James, the Brother of Jesus?


It is no secret that the Catholic Church teaches, and has always taught, that the Blessed Virgin Mary was just that — a virgin — all the days of her life. This teaching does not come out of nowhere, but is based on a long tradition in Christian history. Despite this venerable Christian tradition, Mary’s perpetual virginity is one of the Catholic beliefs most often questioned by Protestants.


It is interesting to note that most, if not all, Protestant denominations have no official teaching on whether or not Mary remained a virgin after giving birth to Jesus. Virtually all of the founding fathers of Protestantism (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, et al) maintained a belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity. Luther preached that “Christ… was the only Son of Mary, and the Virgin Mary bore no children besides Him” (Sermons on John, ch 1–4). Zwingli wrote, “I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the gospel as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact virgin” (Zwingli Opera, Corpus Reformatorum, Berlin, 1905, v. 1, p. 424.).


Most Protestants today, however, assume Mary and Joseph would have had normal marital relations resulting in other children. This is not based on any new historical data unavailable to those in the early Church. Rather it is based on an assumption that… well, that’s just what married people do, isn’t it?


For many, the belief that Jesus had younger siblings seems supported by the Bible itself. After all, we have verses like this: “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon?” (Mk 6:3). Isn’t this biblical proof that Mary had other children besides Jesus?


Before we delve into this specific question, it is important to keep one thing in mind …. The Church has studied the scriptures for thousands of years. Yet the Church maintains that Mary remained a virgin all her life. Has the Church somehow remained unaware of Mk 6:3 all this time? Or is there more to the story?


“Brethren of the Lord”


There are several other passages that mention the “brethren” of Jesus (Mt 12:46, Jn 7:5, Acts 1:14, 1 Cor 9:5). “Brethren” in this context has always been taken to mean “cousin.” This is how Martin Luther interpreted its meaning in his Sermons on John quoted from above. The reason for this is simple. There was no word for “cousin” in Hebrew or Aramaic (the language Jesus most likely would have spoken). The term “brother” or “brethren” was used generically for any male relative, and this is how it is used in the Greek of the New Testament (even though Greek does have a word for “cousin”).


Those who maintain that James, Joseph, Judas and Simon were other biological children of Mary and Joseph might say that this “cousin” explanation is a little too convenient. But it can be demonstrated as true in at least one case — the case of James, the most famous “brother of the Lord.”


St. James was one of the Apostles, the first leader of the Church in Jerusalem, and a very prominent figure in the early Church. Was he, in fact, another son of Mary and Joseph?

We do know that his mother was named Mary. The gospels give us that information. But they also tell us that she was not Mary, the mother of Jesus. We can tell this by comparing the different gospel accounts of the women standing at the foot of the cross.


“Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Mt 27:56).

“Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joseph, and Salome” (Mk 15:40).

“And meanwhile his [Jesus’] mother, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene had taken their stand beside the cross of Jesus” (Jn 19:25).


If we compare these three accounts, we see three women named Mary standing at the foot of the cross: Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene; and Mary, the wife of Cleophas who was also the mother of James and Joseph.

So James’ mother was a Mary, but not the Mary (Mary is a very common name among 1st century Jewish women. I can’t cite it now, but I remember reading in one source that 25% of Jewish women of the era were named some version of “Mary”).


What do we know of James’ father? In Mt 10:3, James is called the son of Alphaeus. It is worth noting that the Aramaic name for Alphaeus could be rendered in Greek as either Alphaeus or Clopas/Cleophas. Since James’ mother Mary is described as the “wife of Cleophas” in Jn 19:25, this is probably the same man described here.


And what do we know of him? Not too much from the scriptures, but according to the 2nd century historian Hegesippus, he was the brother of Joseph, Jesus’ foster-father. This would make James the cousin of Jesus. However, even if Hegesippus is wrong about that detail, we still know from the gospel accounts that James is the son of Alphaeus/Cleophas and a different Mary, and not the son of Mary (mother of Jesus) and Joseph. In other words, James cannot be the biological brother of Jesus.


Does this prove the perpetual virginity of Mary? No. But it does show the danger of challenging any long-held and well-established Christian teaching on the basis of one or two “proof texts” from the Bible.


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