THE REV. KNOW IT ALL’S “GUIDE TO READING THE BIBLE, THAT BIG BOOK ON THE COFFEE TABLE.” Part 10
BEWARE OF GREEKS BEARING GIFTS (unless of course they remember to include the gift return receipt)
Once I heard a preacher loudly denouncing party spirit. He was quoting St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the fifth chapter “Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing....”
Due to this particular preacher’s former way of life, when he heard “party spirit” in the same sentence as drunkenness and carousing, he immediately thought of good times he had enjoyed on many a long forgotten Saturday night. The words “party spirit” were a translation of the Greek word “haeresis” from which comes the English word “heresy.” It has to do with choice or taking sides in an argument, hence belonging to one particular party or another. It is about divisions in the body of Christ, and has nothing to do with beer and loud music.
You may hear a word in your own language that has a number of meanings that have nothing to do with what the Bible is saying. It is amazing how many things we think are in the Bible that aren’t! This particular preacher went on at length and at volume about the evils of having fun of any kind. He completely missed the point of the text and was in fact guilty of the exact thing against which the text was cautioning. He was pushing the agenda of the faction in his church that was opposed to public smiling.
We think the scriptures are clear in what they say, and they are. We are the ones who are unclear in the way we hear it. Things get muddled when translated into a language that is an ocean away and two thousand years removed from their original context. I can hear you throw up your hands in despair and say: “ I don’t speak first century Greek. I will never speak first century Greek! How then can I read the Bible?” The answer is simple: don’t read the Bible; study it.
So many people want to read the Bible so they can say “Been there, done that.” They want to know what the Bible says about their favorite vice or least favorite virtue… I cannot count the number of times someone has asked me to tell them exactly what the Bible says about divorce, or wealth or politics or the end times or, or, or, or.....!
They treat the Bible as some sort of law book, or science book, or worse still some kind of fire insurance that will tell them how much they can get away with and still not burn in hell. “Father, does the Bible say it’s a sin if...” or this is always good: “The Bible doesn’t exactly say that I have to ..., or that I can’t…” (fill in your favorite sin here) That attitude is part of the cancer that is “sola scriptura” (Bible alone). Luther was wrong about sola scriptura. The Bible never mentions “sola scriptura,” but does mention the “church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.” (1Tim.3:15) Truth is not one verse or one line from the Bible. It is the Holy Spirit speaking through the Bible as handed down to us faithfully and clearly for two millennia.
The Bible isn’t a book that you read. It’s a world in which you are meant to live. It’s the story of a family of faith that you can join by means of the Sacraments. There is an easy way to start the life long journey of Bible study. It’s called Bible History. The best Bible History course I know at the present time is produced by Mr. Jeff Cavins of Minnesota. It’s called the “Great Adventure Catholic Bible Study.”
Jeff’s point is that before you get into the Bible with any kind of depth, you have to know the story that the Holy Spirit tells in the 73 books of the Bible. If you treat the Bible like a book and read it from cover to cover, you will probably stop somewhere in the book of Leviticus “From the fellowship offering he is to bring a sacrifice made to the Lord by fire. All the fat that covers the inner parts or is connected to them, both kidneys with the fat on them near the loins, and the covering of the liver, which he will remove with the kidneys.” (Leviticus 3:4-5)
Well, that is certainly is an inspiring text! I’m sure you’ve heard many sermons preached about those heart warming lines from Scripture. Even now, I feel a sermon coming on! Where was I? My very well educated and very saintly mother once tried to read the Bible cover to cover. She stopped when she got to the story of Lot and his daughters, picked up the phone and called me saying, “Do you have any idea what’s in this book!?!”
Mr. Cavins suggests that we start by reading and really learning the story told in 14 books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Judges, First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, First Maccabees, Luke and Acts. From these books, one learns the story of the family of Jesus and the history of God’s people. Then you can go back and plug in the rest of the books.
For instance, the Book of Jeremiah fits into the very end of the Second Book of Kings about 600 years before Christ. It’s a very sad story, the tragic end of a 500 year old dynasty and the destruction of a country. You wouldn’t know this if you hadn’t first read the Books of the Kings, and you would probably just think that the reading from Jeremiah is another incomprehensible thing we hear at church which can provide time for a quick nap.
The Bible is an amazing collection of stories and commentaries on those stories. There is a reason it has been popular for a couple thousand years. If you don’t know the story, it makes no sense. Have you ever started a book in the middle or come into a movie when it’s half over? It makes no sense!
The Bible is not arranged in any chronological order, so most people think it is just a collection of odd tales and inscrutable sayings that mostly make no sense. Let me say it again: THE BIBLE IS NOT ARRANGED IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER. That goes for the New Testament also. We seem to think that the New Testament starts with the story of Jesus and ends with the end of the world, Matthew to Revelation.
Let me share a deep dark secret: the books of the Bible weren’t originally in book form. They were written on long rolls of paper called scrolls! Paper was very expensive, so they didn’t want to waste it. When there was room at the end of a scroll, they would put another book or story on the scroll, not because it was what happened next in the story, but because there was room for it on the scroll!!!! When you read the Bible you think that like modern books, people started writing at the beginning and finished at the end.
Most people assume that the Gospels, (Matthew, Mark. Luke and John) were written first and then we have the Book of Acts and then Paul starts writing and it all ends up neatly with the Apocalypse which comes last because it’s about the end of the world. It’s not that simple. The oldest books in the New Testament aren’t the Gospels, they are some of the Epistles! Paul’s first letter to believers in the Greek town of Thessalonika was written around 52 AD! That’s about twenty years after the resurrection! In it Paul writes that Jesus had risen from the dead. “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.” (1 Thess.4:14) Those words were written well within the lives of those who witnessed the resurrection. Paul wasn’t making this stuff up. He really believed it and was writing this to people; some of whom may have seen it.
The Epistles were written in the following order: Thessalonians 52 AD, Corinthians 57 AD, Galatians 55-57 AD, Romans 57-58 AD, Ephesians 62 AD, Philippians 62 AD, Colossians 62 AD, Philemon 63 AD, Titus 64-65 AD and Timothy64-65 AD. These dates reflect the tradition that Paul was acquitted at his first trial, went on to Spain and then returned to Rome where he was re-arrested by the emperor Nero and was executed perhaps 64, 65 AD.
The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts seem to be a defense of Paul written before his trial in perhaps 62 AD. If this traditional chronology is true, St’ Paul’s Epistles contain the faith of the first thirty years of the Church. They have words like Eucharist, Bishop, Priest, Deacon, Liturgy, Baptism and so on. They recognize the unique role of St. Peter. They are recognizably the roots of the Church of today in its structure and its faith.
People assume that the Gospels were written as the source text and if they don’t find something there, they think it doesn’t go back to Jesus, so it doesn’t count. The Gospels were probably written from 55 to 70 AD, though scholars argue endlessly. Still, it seems indisputable that, in terms of their antiquity, the Epistles are as much the foundational texts of the Church as the Gospels. Certainly the story about Christ is older than the Epistles.
Dr. Peters of NYU points out that St. Paul had heard the Gospel stories before he wrote his Epistles and that some of the sayings of Jesus were memorized or even written down while Jesus was alive in the world, but it is clear that the writing down of the Gospel story is not far removed in time from either the life of Christ nor the writings of St. Paul. It is mostly the product of the 30 years immediately following Christ’s resurrection. All of the Gospels and Epistles were written by witnesses to the resurrection who gave their lives for the truths they had seen with their own eyes.
When you learn the chronology of the events of both Old and New Testaments, the story comes alive. It isn’t just a collection of sacred snippets and Bible bullets that can be used to justify your favorite sins or to harass your least favorite in-laws. You may not know the exact tense of the verb, but if you know the story, these wonderful words mean more and more each time you read them. It is an amazing story, a story that you can be part of.
“The Great Adventure” is a very Catholic way to study the Bible. Pope Benedict calls it canonical exegesis. (That’s Greek for interpreting the Bible as something written for a coherent purpose) The great Cathedrals of Europe are the same kind of Bible Study. When you visit the Cathedral of Chartres, perhaps the high point of gothic architecture, you can see the story of salvation carved in stone from Adam and Eve at the north door to the last judgment on the south door. You can walk around the Cathedral pointing to the stories of the Bible in a way that the simplest child can understand.
Most people don’t want the Bible told in the way that the simplest child can understand. They want to learn or even worse, to teach more sophisticated things. But you have to walk before you can run and crawl before you can walk. I have had great scholars read me the riot act for encouraging people to study the Bible as if it were really true. They find it simplistic, or even worse, fundamentalist! Some teachers delight in explaining to bewildered students that none of these stories are really history. They point out apparent inconsistencies that leave their students knowing nothing of the Bible except that it isn’t true.
Don’t start with an advanced course. Save that for later. I recommend you begin your study of the Bible with the assumption that it is a true story. When you’ve got the story down you can go back again and look at it more critically. With the help of two thousand years of tradition and real scholarship, you can decipher which stories are told poetically and which stories are told historically. Mr. Cavins is right. The Bible is a wonderful adventure, even if you can’t read ancient Greek.
Biblical principle #11 KNOW THE STORY BEFORE YOU READ THE BIBLE