Book Review: Daniel-Rops' Sacred History

In the Nazi-Occupied France of 1943, the Gestapo visited the French publishing house Fayard to break the plates of a new book they were publishing. So what was the Gestapo stopping the presses on? How to Help the Allies When They Finally Get Around to Invading France? Hardly. The book they were so concerned about was entitled Sacred History, by the Catholic author Daniel-Rops, the nom de plume of Henri Jules Charles Petiot (1901-1965). There were many Catholic books being printed in those days, so why this one?

The answer to that question is what makes this book one of the most intriguing that any Catholic author has ever written. In a church which began and perfected “replacement theology,” the idea that Christianity in general and the Church in particular replaced the Jews and their temple sacrificial system with a new people and system, Daniel-Rops produced a sweeping treatment of the central role of the Jewish people from their father Abraham all the way until the time of Jesus Christ. This kind of emphasis on the Jews may have been distasteful to some of Daniel-Rops’ fellow Catholics, but it was anathema to the Nazis, who were busy with their “Final Solution” of the Holocaust. In a way the book was resistance literature, and the Nazis didn’t miss its import. It was not published in France until after the war and, translated into English, published in the U.S. in 1949.

Daniel-Rops begins his history of the Jews in this way:

At Ur in Shinar, a local capital of the Lower Euphrates, about four thousand years ago, a man called Abram was visited by God and, without hesitation, believed the promise: “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great” (Genesis XII:2).

This is the point of departure assigned in the Bible to the whole historical development of which the people of Israel were both the agent and the witness. It is an event of an essentially mystical order, no less mysterious in its essence and no less tangible in its results than was, for example, the mission of Joan of Arc for France. That a small Bedouin clan, nomads wandering, like many others, across plains and steppes, should be the source of a destiny so fraught with significance, the distant heirs of the Patriarchs were to understand as a fact that cannot be explained by the logic of history; it is explainable only as the will of God.

He uses the fruits of archeology—much of which involved his fellow Frenchman, Roland de Vaux—to explain and illuminate the “Sacred History” from Abraham through the coming and going from Egypt, Moses and Joshua, the time of the Judges, the turning point when Samuel anointed first Saul and then David as King, the zenith of the nation under Solomon, its division and long road to disaster, captivity in Babylon, return under the Persians, revolt under the Greeks and at last the various aspects of Judaism that were in place at the time of the coming of the Saviour.

The historical aspect of the Old Testament is one that many people, both its supporters and detractors, struggle with. The detractors decry the cruelty they see in God and the way his people advanced themselves (although they are by and large content to allow the cruelty of the present Middle East pass them by without substantive action.) The supporters, whose principal interest is to apply the Scriptures directly to their own lives, either gloss over much of the sacred history, pick and choose episodes that are easy to understand, or spiritualise it using a sensus plenior based hermeneutic. Daniel-Rops addresses both. To the former, he calls on the concept of progressive revelation, the idea that the way God deals with his people varies according to their state of development. During the conquest he describes the Israelites as “people in their infancy,” carried away by “all the energy and the illogicalness of impetuous youth.” He describes the development of the way the Israelites matured in the way they looked at themselves and their relationship with God through the calamities and triumphs they went through.

To deal with the latter, Daniel-Rops is emphatic: the monotheism of the Jews is the cornerstone of Western civilisation. He makes that point in discussing the name of God given at the Burning Bush and in other places. That may not be spiritually edifying for immediate application, but it’s central to God’s message to the world. The Nazis, who were busy remaking Europe in general and Germany in particular with a pagan construct, didn’t miss the import of Daniel-Rops’ point, another reason they broke the plates.

Sacred History was written by one of Roman Catholicism’s premier authors of the twentieth century, and yet it is not a particularly “Catholic” book as most non-Catholics would understand the term. He uses the deuterocanonical books from time to time, but mostly to catch the pulse of Judaism in the years between the return from exile to Herod. English speaking readers will probably have more trouble with his references to French history and literature than to a Catholic frame of reference. But the one place where his Catholicism comes out is the way he handles the truth content of the Scriptures.

He makes frequent and generally disparaging reference to Protestant Biblical scholarship; neither higher critic nor fundamentalist comes off particularly well in his pages. He is completely convinced of his title: as the quotation above shows, he believes and is convinced (to use Origen’s phrase) that the sweep of Old Testament history is a God-directed process. He is not afraid to consider human events in the process. For example, in Abraham’s call to leave Ur, were there migrations across vulnerable Mesopotamia that made God’s call more credible and motivated him to move himself and his family elsewhere? (Mesopotamia/Iraq’s vulnerability to foreign invasion is certainly something we have seen in abundance lately.)

On the other hand, he takes a breezy, informal approach to the truth content of the details of the Scriptures. He is no inerrantist, but he does not let that stand in the way of his faith. In a long passage towards the end of the book that considers these matters, he states the following:

It is clearly beyond our subject to ask in what measure divine inspiration corresponds with historical exactitude. If the critic, who sees the Bible as a historical document, reduces the facts in the crucible of his analysis, their dogmatic verity is not thereby destroyed. The test that we read is expressly declared to be the work of God, but by the intermediary of man: this accounts for certain fabulous details, or the many different styles, which are inevitable enough. On the other hand, the pseudo-scientific theories of concordism that during the last half-century have attempted to classify the facts of the Bible like facts of modern geology, astronomy, or biology, have produced only superficial criticisms.

The key to understanding this seeming contradiction is in fact Daniel-Rops’ Catholicism. He drifted from his faith and then came back to it. His belief in God is not based on a book but in God himself mediated through an institution. For all the problems that institutionalist religion has, Daniel-Rops—and many other Catholics—see the truth of the Scriptures primarily buttressed by the truth of God and not the other way around, as is customary with Protestants. That reordering, which many non-Catholics find disconcerting, was part of the key as to why the Roman Catholic Church, for all the chaos that came with Vatican II, has survived with its belief structure far more intact than those of its Main Line Protestant counterparts. It’s something that Evangelicals, wrestling with their own current problems in this area, would do well to consider.

Today we have our own new Gestapo and our new Nazis who are trying to impose their own pagan replacement for our civilisation. And we have the lengthening shadow of a very secular state. When Daniel-Rops wrote the book, the Third Republic (only recently gone from the German invasion) had imposed full-bore laïcité on France for at least forty years. It is fitting that we reconsider to our profit this magnificent little book, which finds its message for the present by considering nothing short of its subject: sacred history.

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