Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Biblical Literalism of English Catholic George Leo Haydock

George Leo Haydock (1774-1849) was an English Catholic priest and Bible scholar who edited and annotated the most popular and widely-used English Catholic Bible of the 19th century. His Haydock Catholic Bible Commentary, originally appearing with that version, is one of the most important and influential Catholic Bible commentaries of the modern era. In 2007, the 1859 edition was made available online.

The Old Testament commentary was the fruit of many years of research and study. I should note, however, that while the New Testament portion is quite useful, it apparently was not written by Haydock himself. 

Haydock's Commentary gives us a window into 19th century Catholic views on the interpretation of Scripture in general and Genesis in particular. While Haydock, following standard historical Catholic practice, often expounded on the figurative and prophetic meanings of the text, he at the same time interpreted the relevant parts of the text precisely literally, also following standard Catholic practice.

Keeping in mind the obvious theological points of disagreement, a typical 21st century Protestant fundamentalist would be quite comfortable with 98% of Haydock's work. Update the language slightly, and any of the below could have been written by the creationist evangelist Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis.

Thus, the view expressed by some contemporary Catholics that Catholic thinkers have always had a much more "sophisticated" theological (but non-literal) approach to interpreting the first book of the Old Testament and that, thus, creationism - the literal interpretation of the creation story of Genesis - is nothing more than a modern Protestant phenomenon is false.

To be blunt, those making that claim are either ignorant (often culpably) or dishonest.

You can decide what that makes Word on Fire's Bishop Robert Barron.

Among other things, mainstream early- to mid-19th Catholic thinkers and authors were creationists. And their 19th century Catholic readers would have found this unremarkable.   

Here are some excerpts from Haydock's Commentary, which I have in most cases prefaced by the verse or verses of Genesis that are referenced. (The translations are from the 1899 Douay-Rheims American Edition). In his pronouncements and speculations on the literal meanings of the text, notice how Haydock often cites other Catholic authorities, from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church to his peers and contemporaries.

The Heavens and the Earth were created in six literal days:
1:1 In the beginning God created heaven, and earth. 
...The first cause of all things must be God, who, in a moment, spoke, and heaven and earth were made, heaven with all the Angels; and the whole mass of the elements, in a state of confusion, and blended together, out of which the beautiful order, which was afterwards so admirable, arose in the space of six days...
The sun and moon were created on the fourth day, but light of some kind was created on the first day:
1:3 And God said: Be light made. And light was made. 
Light. The sun was made on the fourth day, and placed in the firmament to distinguish the seasons, &c.; but the particles of fire were created on the first day, and by their, or the earth's motion, served to discriminate day from the preceding night, or darkness, which was upon the face of the deep. H. --- Perhaps this body of light might resemble the bright cloud which accompanied the Israelites, Ex. xiv. 19, or the three first days might have a kind of imperfect sun, or be like one of our cloudy days. Nothing can be defined with certainty respecting the nature of this primeval light. C.
One may even speculate on the precise date (in terms if modern calendars) of the third day of creation:
1:11 And he said: Let the earth bring forth the green herb, and such as may seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after its kind, which may have seed in itself upon the earth. And it was so done. 
...At the creation, trees were covered with fruit in Armenia, while in the more northern regions they would not even have leaves: Calmet hence justly observes, that the question concerning the season of the year when the world began, must be understood only with reference to that climate in which Adam dwelt. Scaliger asserts, that the first day corresponds with our 26th of October, while others, particularly the Greeks, fix it upon the 25th of March, on which day Christ was conceived; and, as some Greeks say, was born and nailed to the cross. The great part of respectable authors declare for the vernal equinox, when the year is in all its youth and beauty. H. See T. and Salien's Annals, B.C. Christ 4053. 
Scripture is not a treatise on natural history, but neither does it ever assert anything false:
1:16 And God made two great lights: a greater light to rule the day; and a lesser light to rule the night: and the stars. 
But we must remember, that the sacred writings were given to instruct us in the way to heaven, and not to unfold to us the systems of natural history; and hence God generally addresses us in a manner best suited to our conceptions, and speaks of nature as it appears to the generality of mankind. At the same time, we may confidently asset, that the Scriptures never assert what is false. If we judge, with the vulgar, that the sun, moon, and stars are no larger than they appear to our naked eye, we shall still have sufficient reason to admire the works of God; but, if we are enabled to discover that the sun's diameter, for example, is 763 thousand miles, and its distance from our earth about 95 million miles, and the fixed stars (as they are called, though probably all in motion) much more remote, what astonishment must fill our breast!

Men (and probably beasts) were originally vegetarians:

1:29 And God said: Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed upon the earth, and all trees that have in themselves seed of their own kind, to be your meat: 
1:30 And to all beasts of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to all that move upon the earth, and wherein there is life, that they may have to feed upon. And it was so done. 
Every herb, &c. As God does not here express leave to eat flesh-meat, which he did after the deluge, it is supposed that the more religious part of mankind, at least, abstained from it, and from wine, till after that event, when they became more necessary to support decayed nature. H. M. --- In the golden age, spontaneous fruits were the food of happy mortals. C.
The Garden of Eden was a real place, located in actual geographical space:
2:8 And the Lord God had planted a paradise of pleasure from the beginning: wherein he placed man whom he had formed. 
Paradise lay probably to the east of Palestine, or of that country where Moses wrote. The precise situation cannot be ascertained. Calmet places it in Armenia, others near Babylon, &c. Some assert that this beautiful garden is still in being, the residence of Henoch and Elias. But God will not permit the curiosity of man to be gratified by the discovery of it. C. iii. 24. How great might be its extent we do not know. If the sources of the Ganges, Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates, be not now changed, and if these be the rivers which sprung from the fountains of Paradise, (both which are points undecided) the garden must have comprised a great part of the world, H., as the Ganges rises in Judea, and the Nile about the middle of Africa. T.
The tree of life and the tree of knowledge were literal entities:
2:9 And the Lord God brought forth of the ground all manner of trees, fair to behold, and pleasant to eat of: the tree of life also in the midst of paradise: and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. 
The tree of life. So called, because it had that quality, that by eating of the fruit of it, man would have been preserved in a constant state of health, vigour, and strength, and would not have died at all. The tree of knowledge. To which the deceitful serpent falsely attributed the power of imparting a superior kind of knowledge beyond that which God was pleased to give. Ch. --- Of what species these two wonderful trees were, the learned are not agreed. The tree of knowledge, could not communicate any wisdom to man; but, by eating of its forbidden fruit, Adam dearly purchased the knowledge of evil, to which he was before a stranger. Some say it was the fig-tree, others an apple-tree. Cant. viii. 5. But it probably agreed with no species of trees with which we are acquainted, nor was there perhaps any of the same kind in paradise. T.
Adam lived to the age of 930, but from the moment he ate the fruit, his body had started to decay:
2:17 But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat. For in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death. 
The death of the soul, and become obnoxious to that of the body; thou shalt become a mortal and lose all the privileges of innocence. Though Adam lived 930 years after this, he was dying daily; he carried along with him the seeds of death, as we do, from our very conception.
Eve was literally created from Adam's rib:
2:21 Then the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon Adam: and when he was fast asleep, he took one of his ribs, and filled up flesh for it. 
2:22 And the Lord God built the rib which he took from Adam into a woman: and brought her to Adam. 
2:23 And Adam said: This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man. 
Of my flesh. God did not, therefore, take a rib without flesh, nor perhaps did he replace flesh without a rib in Adam's side, though S. Aug. thinks he did. These words of Adam are attributed to God, Matthew xix, because they were inspired by him. --- Woman. As this word is derived from man, so in Hebrew Isha (or Asse) comes from Iish or Aiss; Latin vira woman, and virago comes from vir. H. --- But we do not find this allusion so sensible in any of the Oriental languages, as in the Hebrew, whence another proof arises of this being the original language. C.
The Fall changed the actual properties of nature:

3:17 And to Adam he said: Because thou hast hearkened to the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat, cursed is the earth in thy work; with labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life. 
3:18 Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herbs of the earth. 
Thorns, &c. These were created at first, but they would have easily been kept under: now they grow with surprising luxuriancy, and the necessaries of life can be procured only with much labour.

Much of Genesis is comprised of literal eyewitness accounts (beginning with those of Adam), and their authority is guaranteed by God: 
[Comment on 3:24]...Concerning the transactions of these early times, parents would no doubt be careful to instruct their children, by word of mouth, before any of the Scriptures were written; and Moses might derive much information from the same source, as a very few persons formed the chain of tradition, when they lived so many hundred years. Adam would converse with Mathusalem, who knew Sem, as the latter lived in the days of Abram. Isaac, Joseph, and Amram, the father of Moses, were contemporaries: so that seven persons might keep up the memory of things which had happened 2500 years before. But to entitle these accounts to absolute authority, the inspiration of God intervenes; and thus we are convinced, that no word of sacred writers can be questioned. H.
Men before the Flood often lived extremely long lives. Less than 6,000 years elapsed between the creation of Adam and the birth of Jesus (note that these estimates are 1,200 to 1,600 years longer than some of the Protestant estimates of the time):
5:5 And all the time that Adam lived came to nine hundred and thirty years, and he died. 
He died...God prolonged the lives of the patriarchs to a more advanced age, that the world might be sooner filled. Their constitution was then more excellent, the fruits of the earth more nourishing, &c. But the sole satisfactory reason for their living almost a thousand years, while we can hardly arrive at 70, is, because so it pleased God, in whose hands are all our lots. There is a great difference in the number of years assigned by the Hebrew and Vulgate, from that which the Samaritan copy mentions; and the Sept. differs from both. Whether the difference be real, or only apparent, we shall not pretend to determine. The Church has not decided which system of chronology is the most accurate. In the Martyrology, she adopts that of the Sept. and placed the birth of Christ in 5199, after Eusebius and Bede, though Riccioli calculates the Sept. at 5634 years. H...
Men before the Flood were probably larger physically - akin to giants - but there also existed actual giants:
6:4 Now giants were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, and they brought forth children, these are the mighty men of old, men of renown. 
Giants. It is likely the generality of men before the flood were of a gigantic stature, in comparison with what men now are. But these here spoken of, are called giants, as being not only tall in stature, but violent and savage in their dispositions, and mere monsters of cruelty and lust. Ch. --- Yet we need not imagine, that they were such as the poets describe, tearing up mountains, and hurling them against heaven. Being offspring of men, who had lived hitherto with great temperance, but now gave full scope to their passions, and the love of the fair daughters whom they chose, we need not wonder that they should be amazingly strong and violent. Nephilim, rushing on, as Ag. translates. That there have been giants of an unusual size, all historians testify. Og, Goliah, &c. are mentioned in Scripture, and the sons of Enac are represented as much above the common size, as the Hebrews were greater than grasshoppers. Num. xiii. 34. If we should suppose they were four or five times our size, would that be more wonderful that they should live nine or ten times as long as we do? See S. Aug. C. D. xv. 9. 23. Calmet's Dissert. &c. Delrio affirms, that in 1572 he saw at Rouen, a native of Piedmont, above nine feet high. H. --- Of old. The corruption of morals had commenced many ages ago, and some of the sons of Seth had given way to their lusts; so that we are not to suppose, that these giants were all born within a hundred years of the flood, as some might suppose from their being mentioned here, after specifying the age of Noe. C. v. 31. H.
Here are Haydock's speculations on the physical design of the Ark, extrapolated from the instructions given to Noah by God in Genesis 6:14-16:
Timber planks. Heb. "gopher wood," which is no where else mentioned in Scripture. It was probably a sort of wood full of rosin, and being besmeared with something like our pitch, was capable of resisting the fury of the ensuing tremendous storm, for a length of time. C. H. --- Rooms to separate the birds, various animals, provisions, &c. --- Pitch, lit. "besmear it with bitumen," which has a very strong smell, able to counteract the disagreeable odours arising from beasts confined. M. --- It might be mixed with some other ingredients, naphtha, pitch, &c. C. 
Three hundred cubits, &c. The ark, according to the dimensions here set down, contained four hundred and fifty thousand square cubits; which were more than enough to contain all the kinds of living creatures, with all necessary provisions: even supposing the cubits here spoken of to have been only a foot and a half each, which was the least kind of cubits. Ch. --- It is therefore unnecessary for us to have recourse, with Cappel, to the sacred cubit, which was twice as large as the common one, but which seems not to have been in use among the Jews before the Babylonian captivity. Still less need we adopt the geometrical cubit, which contains six ordinary ones, as we might be authorised to do by the great names of Origen and S. Aug. de C. D. xv. 27. q. in Gen. i. 4. These dimensions would make the ark as large as a city. Moses always speaks of the same sort of cubit, used probably in Egypt. Apelles and other heretics, with some modern infidels, have attempted to shew, that this account of Moses is fabulous. But they have been amply refuted by able calculators, John Buteo, Pelletier, &c. This amazing structure, for which God himself gave the plan, was divided with three stories, besides the lower part of the vessel, which might serve to keep fresh water. The different species of animals are not so numerous, as some imagine. Fishes, and such creatures as can live in water, would not need to come into the ark. Animals deprived of exercise, and allowed barely what may support nature, will live upon a very little. Even an ox, according to Columella, will live on 30 pounds of hay, or on a cubic foot, a whole day, so that 400 of these large creatures might be supported on 146,000 cubic feet. The middle story, for provisions, would alone contain 150,000 cubits. Noe's family, and the birds, would probably occupy the room above, in which was a window all around, of the height of a cubit, without glass or crystal, which were not yet invented, but defended with lattice work of wood, like our dairy rooms. H. 
In a cubit. This is understood by some, of the height of the window; by others, of the roof, which would be almost flat, like the top of a coach. Menoch supposes, that the whole ark was to be measured with the cubit in every part, from the bottom to the top; and the words of it, properly refer to the ark. --- Side, or at the end, about the middle way, that the animals might be coveyed easily to their stalls. The door would open into the story allotted to the beasts, and all things might enter it by a sort of bridge, or by sloping planks. C. --- Ordure might be thrown down into the lowest part of the ark, separated from the reservoir of fresh water, or might be brought up with ropes and buckets to the window at the top, which would easily open. T.
I'm going to stop here. But one could go on to cite Haydock's treatment of virtually everything else in Genesis as literal history.

I encourage those who are interested to mark Haydock as a possible reference for their other Bible readings.


  1. He's close on some things, wrong on others. For example:

    "The sun and moon were created on the fourth day, but light of some kind was created on the first day:"

    That's not what the Hebrew says and Genesis was written in Hebrew (not Yiddish).

  2. Bishop Barron is a charlatan.